Language barriers can have a big impact on public transportation. This is a huge issue in cities where more languages are spoken, as well as other transportation hubs such as airports and other facilities. It is up to the personnel of each to learn the prevailing second and third languages of the area. This is no easy task, of course, and we think that a commitment to this is a paramount feature of any growing city.
One of the hardest things to ask personnel to do is to learn the languages that are very different, such as Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and others that use a markedly different character system as well as grammar rules. It’s one thing to learn Spanish or French or German, which share similar words and grammar. However, it’s no secret that Chinese and other similar languages that are so different are, well, hard.
I was just looking into Rocket Chinese a few days ago in order to get some of the basics of Chinese down, and found that even the first lesson was so hard!
So why is it so hard to learn Chinese as an English speaker? Well, to start, Chinese is a tonal language. The same word, such as “ma” can have different meanings based on the musicality that you say it with. An ascending pitch means one thing, and a descending pitch means another. There are four ways to say that word and four different meanings.
Even Chinese people will admit that their language is a bit difficult to learn. However, they will say this with a certain amount of pride. Once they realize just how hard their language is for others, and they can see this from their vantage point of having already learned it as a native, they can kind of take on a role of mastery.
The Character System
One of the reasons that Chinese is so hard is that their writing system is incredibly complex. Their character system, while very beautiful and mysterious, is a pain in the butt to learn from scratch. It can take a native Mandarin speaker 7 to 8 years to learn 3000 characters. Students of other languages such as English and Spanish can achieve comparable levels in half that time.
There is an interesting quote from a blog entry from a graduate student of Chinese:
“My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can’t read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can’t skim to save my life.” This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers (at least in those unguarded moments when one has had a few too many Tsingtao beers and has begun to lament how slowly work on the thesis is coming).
This is a huge admission – this is not an easy language to learn. Extremely smart graduate students unable to read texts after 10 years of study? Absurd!
The funny thing is, China is vast becoming a global superpower, however the language doesn’t seem to be holding them back. Does being fluent in Chinese make a person smarter, in a way, because of how their language is? It’s an interesting question of linguistic relativity.