Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What Did You Say?

I use 3 languages: English, Chinese and Malay.

It may sound a little over as Singaporeans are mostly bilingual. However, if we consider the number of languages in the world, what I know is puny.

There are about 7000 languages currently spoken around the world. Over 60% of the 6.5 billion world population speaks 30 most spoken languages. That leaves the other languages with only a small number of speakers. 516 of these languages are classified as nearly extinct, as only a few elderly speakers are still living. Every 2 weeks, one of these languages dies. By 2100, more than half of these languages will likely to disappear for good.

It is generally agreed that Chinese is the most spoken language in the world (more than 1 Bil) and that is followed by Spanish and English (more than 300 mil each).

Ain't I glad that I do have some basic command of the world's most widely spoken language?

Many concede that Chinese is not an easy language to handle. Learning Chinese writing in particular, can be agonizing and mind-boggling.

Chinese writing was invented more than 4000 years ago and the modern writing has evolved from the earliest form of 'Oracle Bone Script' (甲骨文) (jiăgŭwén). For centuries, Chinese writing did not undergo any alphabetization and it remains in the form of logograms.

Logograms are visual symbols representing words. Compared to alphabetic written words (eg. English), it is harder to guess the sound of the words. Whereas, it is easier to guess the meaning of logograms. The ancient Egyptian writing is another example of logogram.

There are more than 40,000 Chinese characters. For basic literacy, you need to know at least 3000 characters. There is almost no shortcut to learning each and every character. Many of these characters are only differentiated with a mere dot or stroke.

A Chinese word is a combination of 2 or more characters with each character representing one syllable. Knowing the meanings of the individual characters in a word helps to infer the general meaning of the word. Sometimes, such inferences may instead, lead to absurdities.

The order of the characters that make up the word is also crucial. Confused learners who mistakenly jumble up the sequence may find themselves paying a price of miscommunication.

Honey is 蜂蜜 (feng mi). However, if you ask for 蜜蜂 (mi feng) instead, you may earn yourself some nasty stings as it means 'bee'.

Chinese character tattoos are very popular today. The characters are beautiful and are considered an exotic form of expression by many. However, another common mistake is having the wrong character tattooed due to the lack of understanding of the tattoo artists.

Choosing the wrong expression can be embarrassing. Other more common mistakes are tattooing characters with missing strokes or inking it backward. It can get messy to undo such mistakes.

Chinese characters evolved over the past thousands of years. In 1949, China officially adopted the simplified Chinese script in an effort to eradicate illiteracy. Today, this set of characters is also used in Singapore.

Simplified no doubt, it has not make Chinese writing easy, at least, to me.

In a passage, the Chinese characters can be written horizontally either from left to right or from right to left. It is also acceptable to write vertically top down, starting from the right to the left. This flexibility in itself poses some difficulties. Reading a passage in a wrong direction will certainly make the content sound quizzical.

Chinese was officially romanized in 1979. Since then, the 'Hanyu Pinyin' system has been used to teach Chinese to school children and non-native speakers. It is also used to spell Chinese names in foreign publications and to enter Chinese characters on computers.

I was exposed to the Chinese language since young. After decades, I still find it difficult to grip a good command of the basic. I can choose to push myself towards and beyond the basic proficiency. Alternatively, I can choose to banish it and lose the ability to communicate with more than 1 Bil people in the world.

The choice seems obvious.

"The world is of the opinion that those who know Chinese characters are wise and worthy, whereas those who do not know characters are simple and stupid."
- Zheng Qiao, 郑樵 (1104-1162)

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