Scenes from the Cold War at P.F. Chang's

So I'm waiting for a table at P.F. Chang's. At one end of the hostess station is a stack of paper menus--at the other end is a sample gift card in a little gift bag. I'm sure I've seen both items many times before, but now, seeing them juxtaposed, I notice something interesting.

I go over and ask the blond teenager snapping her gum behind the desk, "Do you have any extra bags like this?" She goes off and returns with a bag and hands it to me. I take one of the menus and show it to her.

"Did you ever notice that the characters over here are different from those over here?"

"Yeah, they're different."

"See these over here [on the left above] are traditional characters that have been used for thousands of years. And these [on the right] are simplified versions instituted by the Communist government in 1956."

At that, her eyes took on an icy blue cast that raised the hair on the back of my neck. "So--you have discovered our little secret! For too long have your firecracker-shrimp-fattened feet trod on the necks of the honest, hard-working peasantry. Soon our network of bistro installations will be complete, and your pitiful, trusting country will fall into our hands like an overripe lychee fruit!"

Okay, that last paragraph was made up, but the rest of this story is true. In a sense the characters on both right and left of the image above are the same, in the same way that "theater" and "theatre" are the same. It probably says something about how the mind works that the difference is easy to overlook unless you see them side-by-side. (BTW the first character [in either version] is pronounced hua with a high level tone. It means "splendor" and in this case "China." The second is pronounced guan with a falling-rising tone and means "building" in the sense of a restaurant, for example.)

As noted, the Chinese government instituted the first round of simplification in 1952. I wish they had asked me about it ahead of time--I could have told them it was a bad idea. The simplified forms have just one advantage (less and less relevant in the age of the word processor): they can be written more quickly. They are not particularly easier to learn--the old forms, although more complex, are more pictorial in nature.

Most especially, the simplified characters violate Serge's Second Principle of Engineering: A single bad standard is better than two good standards. All students of the Chinese language, both native and foreign, must learn two versions of most characters. Not withstanding the fact that Taiwan continues to use the traditional forms, even on the mainland books printed prior to 1956 did not suddenly vanish when the simplified forms were introduced.

Some of the simplified forms are naturally easy to recognize. This character, pronounced jian with a falling tone, means 'see':
Others are more like WTF? This one, pronounced wu with a rising tone, means "nonexistent":
Wikipedia has a nice summary of the many different ways in which particular characters were simplified.

Finally, the increasing numbers of people who elect to study both Japanese and Chinese now sometimes need to learn three different version of the same character, as the Japanese government also simplified some characters (though not as many, nor generally as drastically); but often the Japanese and Chinese simplications differ:
(BTW this character, pronounced fa with a high level tone [or hatsu in Japanese], has a meaning difficult to sum up in a single English word. It appears in words with meanings such as "discover", "explode", "speak out", "put on the market", and it carries a sense of something suddenly appearing or opening or becoming prominent.)

All this rather makes me appreciative that the English language is out of anyone's control. Can you imagine the government trying to dictate that henceforth "night" will be spelled "nite"?

Language Blogging

You can't be Jason Bourne without mastering a bunch of languages. During the course of the series we get to see him speak French, Swiss German, Dutch, Russian, and Spanish, all with exceeding fluency (except he seems slightly less comfortable in Russian). This scene shows him speaking French and Dutch at a less frenetic moment, when he still knows nothing of his identity. The point is: Jason Bourne has learned so well that he's not even sure what his native language is.

…whereby this blog introduces a new feature. As a rule I don’t use this blog to imitate what I see others doing elsewhere. This is why, for example, I rarely blog about politics.

Lately I’ve been reading several language blogs (that is, blogs about foreign-language study). I particularly like Steve Kaufmann’s Linguist blog, Benny the Irish Polyglot, and Tim Ferriss’s occasional posts on language. I’ve noticed two things: (1) There is a lot of valuable information to be had out there; however (2) In line with the theme of this blog, there are also blind sports that most everyone seems to be overlooking, Henceforth I’ll be working to fill in some of the gaps (starting with a small tidbit at the bottom of this post).

Time-honored language-blogging tradition now demands that I display a few foreign-language credentials, and henceforth periodically report on ongoing progress.

Rule of thumb: Never ask a polyglot how many languages he or she speaks. The problem is that if the answer is large enough to be interesting the only honest answer is It's complicated. Such as: Well, I read this one fairly well but can’t speak much. Or: I can ask for directions and get the price of a train ticket but I got in big trouble the last time I tried to pick up a girl in a bar.

So with this caveat, here is my current list. These are arranged in roughly descending order of proficiency, ranging from serious fluency at the top of the list to the ability to ask directions and order dinner at the end. Future posts will flesh out some of these descriptions.

Languages so far:
English (my mother tongue)
Mandarin Chinese

The three starred items at the bottom are dead languages (which most language bloggers apparently won’t touch). These are difficult to compare with the others on an apples-to-apples basis—the concept of “conversation,” for example, has little meaning in a dead language.

Languages in progress: The list above also doesn’t include the languages I am actively studying at present: Arabic and (modern) Tibetan, both to be the subject of future progress reports in future posts.

And some for the future: I haven’t started these yet, but I hope to someday. This list is extremely fluid--I just added one today. In no particular order: *Latin, Hebrew, Czech, Mongolian, Modern and *Ancient Greek, *Akkadian, *Avestan, Indonesian, Swahili, Farsi, Nepali, Norwegian, *Mayan, *Old English, Vietnamese, *Hittite.

Chinese-English wordplay: To close out this post, here’s the exclusive tidbit I promised: a bilingual pun. It makes a good icebreaker when you meet someone from China—provided he or she speaks English fairly well.

First, write the following Chinese character:

(It helps if you can write it with the proper stroke order, but that’s a subject for another post.) Ask them what it means. (In fact, this is pronounced “yan” with a falling tone and It means “to swallow.”)

Next, write the following character:

…and ask them now what does this mean? Notice it looks almost exactly like the first one except the little square on the left is missing.

Generally at this point your Chinese acquaintance will display momentary bemusement followed by amusement. See, this second character is also pronounced “yan” with a falling tone, and it also means “swallow”, but it’s the name of the bird.

(Linguistic note, for those who like to know what’s going on: The fact that the two words sound the same in both Chinese in English is total coincidence, but the fact that the characters look similar is not. These two characters illustrate two out of several methods of forming Chinese character.

The bird character is a pictograph, a picture of a swallow, although so highly evolved and stylized that it no longer looks like a bird. The four dots on the bottom were originally tail feathers.

The other character is formed by adjoining the Chinese character for “mouth” (the little square). The bird is there to show the pronunciation. In other words: “Something to do with the mouth, that sounds like “swallow.”)

Lip-Reading Update

It was some five months ago that I announced in this forum the inception of my formal lip-reading training, namely using the Read My Lips! DVD series. Halfway through the series now, I'm back for a progress report.

First, I have been successful in at least one respect: I have managed to consistently work at it a bit each day. This counts as at least a partial victory for any kind of resolution. In comparison to other self-improvement projects (such as going to the gym), this one does not require a lot of energy--so it's not that hard to sit at the end of the day and watch people's lips move for twenty minutes or so.

Here's a sample of what the series is like. This is in fact the very first few seconds of the first video, complete with what I have come to think of as the lip-reading national anthem:

It definitely gets harder as you go along. Some of the sentences are hard to understand because they are things you never hear in real life. For example, "June is busting out all over." Honestly--who says that? On the other hand, a later lesson has "That rhinoceros reminds me of your mother" (I am not kidding). Oddly enough, I frequently hear this in real life.

The series works pretty well, but I have thought of improvements. For example, it is surprisingly difficult to distinguish "eight" and "nine". How about a series of snippets with people saying one or the other at random--or other difficult-to-distinguish phrases. I have noticed that women are distinctly easier to understand then men. I read also that women tend to make better lip-readers. Oh well.

I find some sentences are impenetrable at first try, and others surprisingly clear. When the lip-reading succeeds, its almost as if one can hear the voice (although the DVD's never let you hear anyone's voice at any time). Just like a foreign-language class in school, I don't expect the finish the last DVD and be ready for the real world. I have some thoughts about how to continue from that point, but that problem is still a few months away.

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, here is Ethan Hunt's lip-reading scene from MI-III:

MI-III is fantasy, of course. If you want a real-life equivalent to Ethan Hunt, you might consider Sue Thomas. A highly proficient lip-reader, she worked for the FBI reading what people say in surveillance videos, etc. This is good to know, because in watching my DVDs I sometimes am tempted to think "Nobody could possibly do this." It's good to know others can really succeed at this. What one person can learn, so can another.

I just started reading Thomas's book. Maybe I'll be able to pick up a few pointers. Thomas is Ethan Hunt in real life, minus the explosions and jumping off of buildings. Or maybe those are included--ask me again after I finish the book.