Hits and Misses

So the summer that started my Mandarin studies really opened my eyes about language, and the limitations present in the study of it. I had a Kazakh classmate whom I could talk with in Russian at the beginning of the summer. But we had split into different classes and after seeing each other at the end of the summer, it was as if all the Russian had been pushed out of my head. I kept pulling out Chinese words and stumbling over my grammar.

When I got back to Columbia I still hadn’t learned my lesson, because I signed up for Russian, Mandarin, Italian, Finnish, and Classical Greek. Haha, after about a week I dropped Finnish and Greek. Then in another two weeks I dropped everything but Mandarin, and made up my mind to concentrate on that. I’d tested into the second year of Chinese, but that was still a little too easy, and the next semester I tested into fourth year Chinese, but I decided to take that and third year concurrently, not wanting to miss anything.

The summer after junior year I was back in Beijing, at Beida, and Tsinghua for the fall semester. I made the mistake of trying to take undergraduate classes. They were difficult at my level then, and I was not very motivated at all. That was a nasty block on my transcript, and I regret not having opted to take the straight language classes. After returning to the States I switched tracks and went heavy into biology, rather than language, and worked at a neurobio laboratory for a year after graduation.

That was a wonderful experience, all in all. Met lots of great people, did lots of interesting things, met my fiancee!, but my Mandarin languished for a year and a half. So I left in the summer of 2007 and headed back to Beijing, imagining I’d perfect my Chinese and pursue a career in translation. So I went for tutoring, went back to Tsinghua for some language courses, and I’m currently doing an internship in a Chinese legal firm, where I get to do a lot of translation work. However, I’ve decided to drop the idea of working as a translator, at least for now. One of the things I realized is that it’s not so much the perfection of a language that I like, it’s the acquisition of it that tickles my fancy.

At the end of last semester I learned Hiragana and Katakana (in six hours thanks to this book), and in the last few months, and especially hard in just the last month, I’ve been working on my Japanese! And I love it! However, what worries me is that I’m not in an immersive environment, and have limited contact with native speakers. But I’ve been working around that. For the rest of my life I will not always have the opportunity to be in the countries or regions whose languages I am learning, so I’ll have to come up with strategies to deal with it.

This blog is basically going to be a record of how I develop those strategies, and how I implement them daily.

Next time: Japanese in China?

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Because I Said So...

Here’s an interview from the Southern Weekend (November 11, 2007). It’s about law and religion, pretty interesting. I think I’d like to read up on the historical roots of law and its philosophical justification. However they abridged the interview for this article, so I feel that it doesn’t flow like it must have in reality, and some things seem out of place or unfinished. And I also kind of doubt that this guy actually called Confucianism a religion. That seems like too much of a rookie mistake.


[Law]What’s Behind the Law?

On January 31, 2006, Liu Peng, a researcher for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ School of American Studies, and visiting researcher at Emory University’s (US) Center for the Study of Law and Religion, interviewed Professor Harold Berman at his Emory University School of Law office. During the two and a half hour long interview, Professor Berman summarized his idea of the law in concise and simple terms. This was the only in depth academic dialogue that he had with a Chinese scholar before he passed away. Because of space restrictions, the interview has been abridged by the paper.


Liu Peng(Liu):Professor,what commonalities do you believe exist between the law and religion?

:Right, at the very least there are four points:ritual、tradition、authority, and universality. The belief in law is widespread, and is like a world religion. I very much believe that Christianity and all the great religions, especially Confucianism and Buddhism, and even all worldly belief systems, including Communism, have a spiritual level to them.

Liu:In a country that doesn’t have a foundation of religious belief, how can the law exercise its function on its own?

Bo:The law can only come into effect if it possesses spiritual force. If every person believes that it is wrong to break the law, then we need this law. I know this is true of any place.

Liu:What you mean is,when it comes to the law there are universal principles that can be applied to all of humanity?

Bo:Right,it exists within people。

Liu:Then,what do you think are the main differences between belief in the law and religious beliefs?

Bo:I think that whether or not the law has a spiritual element depends on how you look at it. Take the 6th and 7th Commandments of the 10 Commandments; no matter what the culture, stealing, killing, and reneging on promises are all wrong.

Liu:In China, we don’t have this type of Christian background, culture, or tradition, and because of this there are some people who emphasize the importance of the law, and call on people to respect the law. Our problem is that we have the law, but the people do not carry it out or obey it. How would you resolve this?

Bo:I think that,if they change their own understanding of the law, then things will take a good turn. Because the law is not just what the government says. People mainly know the unwritten laws, the ones that are set down in the peoples’ own households. To abide by one’s promises, help one’s neighbor, they believe it should be like this.

Liu:That is to say that unwritten laws exist within people.

Bo:Right。Children should respect their parents, and parents should take care of their children.

Liu:Then where do these common ideas come from? From religion or from spiritual beliefs?

Bo:I believe it comes from spiritual beliefs. For instance parents should treasure, respect, and take care of their own children: I call this spiritual, because it’s not just a moral, it’s a kind of feeling; it’s not just a good idea, it’s a passion. Men and women become attached to each other, and the question is, can they be faithful to one another? This is a spiritual question.

Liu:You studied in the former Soviet Union,where atheism was the main ideology, and there was also a set of laws to govern the people. Yet as a whole, the society had no true religion or beliefs. How do you explain the role of law here?

:If you take the Soviet Union as an example,the majority of the people, or rather the overwhelming majority of the people, preserved their beliefs in Christianity. Bef ore the Khrushchev era, they served as a code of ethics for Communism. If you read it, you would find out that it asks people to be friendly to others, and not tell lies.

:We also have those kinds of standards.

:Aren’t they like an oath?

:Yes, especially for party members, it means that you must be a good citizen in society and be a good member of one’s family; and you must be a very good person, a perfect person. It’s a very strict requirement.

Bo:It was also like that in the Soviet Union,the difference being that they required that every person should work hard to live up to that standard. At that time they were in the process of establishing Communism, and for those founders, it was necessary to be ethical to be a Communist, correct? In a Communist society, if every person should help others, and love others, then everything would be wonderful, and every person would be an atheist. This was all written in the code of ethics. They thought religion was harmful to people, causing people to fight and have conflicts because of different religions.

Liu:That means that on the surface they didn’t have religion, but in actuality they had something which served a religious function.

:Right,you could also say that it was based on religion that accepts “human nature as inherently good”. <p class="MsoNormal" style="text-indent: 21pt;"> </p>Liu:In China,there is a problem that people always emphasize or debate: if we establish a law, how can we guarantee that the law will be able to carry out its function? There are those who think that we should not depend on people and should instead depend on the system. What do you think of this viewpoint?

Bo:Just as you’ve seen, the law has its limits. If people understand this point, then it is not a question of how to use the law to make more money, it is a spiritual question. If different types of laws must be distinguished, it still always returns to basic moral principles, just as we say, “My Lord! You shouldn’t kill, you should steal, and you shouldn’t lie” and so on. We can perpetuate law based on these basic principles. If you steal, you will go to jail or be dealt other charges or punishments, this only needs a few regulations and programs of substantive law, and people will partake in the establishment of this type of law.

Liu:If you believe there is a universal law, how would you tell people of different faiths, backgrounds, and religions that everyone should obey this sort of law?

Bo:Abiding by agreements, not encroaching on others’ rights,respecting other people’s rights to property, this is simply human nature.

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After reading Barry Farber’s book, I became much more interested in linguistics and in language study. Unfortunately Columbia had no linguistics major, and my freshman schedule didn’t allow any time for Mandarin, which I had decided would be my first target. So I started with Russian instead.

Thanks to some wonderful teachers (Thank you Natalya and Dzhon!) my Russian study was fun, and I feel like I did come out with a novice’s command of it after two years. However, I think that I hadn’t really absorbed the proper way to study language. I still treated it more in terms of an academic class, and because of a busy schedule and the standard distractions of freshman and sophomore year, I didn’t immerse myself in it like I should have. But one lasting thing that Russian gave me was a deep respect for grammar. Spoken Latin, that was how I always thought of it. Declensions and conjugations are fine and dandy on paper, but when you need to do it on the fly, yikes.

But in 2004, during the summer of my sophomore year, I went to Beijing to study Mandarin for three months, and this radically altered my perception of my language abilities. I remembered nothing from my Hong Kong International School Mandarin classes, with the exception of how to write 我, 你, 他, and 她, and a joke about the numbers. So two weeks before I left I started going through a textbook on my own, and then I finally touched down in Beijing.

I was living alone, had a tutor three hours a day, class another three hours a day, and no English speaking friends. Haha, no good friends at all, really. It wasn’t a college program, rather my classes were in a small language school where half of my peers were 30+ year old Europeans looking to improve their Mandarin, or equally old Korean and Japanese women, whose husbands were working in Beijing. There was a handful of young Korean and Japanese kids my age as well, but there was no way we could communicate.

So my days were spent studying Chinese, beginning the moment I woke up and drilled flashcards on the way to school, and then hours and hours after class reviewing characters and texts. I lived exactly how I should have lived if I’d wanted to study a language. It’s funny how I can look back at that time and still rave about it, but it’s the truth. I still remember the moment when everything actually clicked.

The whole program was arranged through a travel agency, and the manager was the typical sort of Chinese middle aged business man. During the first few weeks of my stay there, I could not understand him for the life of me, not even simple sentences, because he spoke so fast and spoke not at all clearly. The other workers in their office, especially the women, had crystal clear voices and I had no problem communicating with them, at least within the limits of my Chinese at that time. After 7 weeks of study, I went on vacation (to Inner Mongolia and the Northeast) for a week and a half, and then came back for the last stretch of Beijing study. The manager took me out to dinner one day, and lo and behold, I could freaking understand him! It was as if he’d taken elocution lessons or something. And I started hanging out with the younger kids in my class, because I could actually talk to them and get to know them. Granted, we weren’t talking about politics or quantum physics, but we were all at the level where the conversation wasn’t permeated by awkward silences arising from gaping holes in basic language skills.

And so to me that was just wow. That was the first time in my life I was freely communicating in a different language, and it was liberating and fascinating all at the same time.

Next time: More Hits and Misses

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The biggest mistake of all was not learning Tagalog. Not a particularly popular or widely spoken language, but it was available to me as a child. My Mom, a filipina, was there as a resource but I never bothered to learn any. I didn’t even think twice about it. So I missed out on the double A bilingual boat, and grew up stranded on straight English. Not that I regret that; I love my mother tongue, and the more I study other languages the more I appreciate its quirks and nuances.

My father was an army officer, and I moved around quite a bit as a kid, and spent a good amount of time overseas. Hong Kong, Korea, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, I’d lived in or been to all these places. All those chances! I went to a Korean after school program, I studied a little Mandarin at school in Hong Kong, had some futile attempts at weekend Chinese school, but nothing substantial ever came of it.

Back in the United States language studies started with Spanish in 7th grade, up until junior year of high school. I didn’t have bad teachers, and I had great grades in the classes, but now I couldn’t for the life of me stammer out any Español that would be more than only borderline coherent. I also took two years of Latin, but God help me if I try declining anything. Agricola, agricolae, agricolae, agricolam, agricola. Haha, that’s about it for me, both grammar and vocabulary-wise.

So what was the problem? I wasn’t thinking about “language study” as “language study”. I was just thinking of it as “study”. It was just another course (or another annoyance). It would be many years before I came to where I am now, where I’m aware that the “language” in “language study” puts this pursuit in a different class then mere “study”. Language is a fundamental human trait, and the acquisition of it lies far outside the realm of pure academic study. You need to soak in language, to breathe it in, to wrap yourself in it and live it. Otherwise you’re just walking around in circles, talking crazy.

Next time: Hits!

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<p>c.1645, from Gk. polyglottos “speaking many languages,” lit. “many-tongued,” from polys “many” (see poly-) + glotta, Attic variant of glossa “language,” lit. “tongue.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

The summer before I started college, I read this book, which introduced me to the idea of polyglottism. A general guide to language study, it gave a rundown of some techniques and guidelines, but it most importantly was a source of inspiration. I had never really considered language learning as something I would love, but now it probably is the hobby I enjoy the most.

So in this blog I’m going to let you follow the trajectory of my language studies, starting from today. I’ve missed lots of language opportunities over the course of my life, and sometimes lost sight of my goal, but now I’m making amends for my transgressions!

Next post: my personal language history!</p>

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Genesis 1:1-19

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,

there was no formless wasteland, and no darkness that covered the abyss, and no mighty wind swept over the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be a vacuum fluctuation that causes a singularity which is filled homogeneously and isotropically with an incredibly high energy density, huge temperatures and pressures, and very rapidly expands and cools,” and there was a vacuum fluctuation that caused a singularity filled homogeneously and isotropically with an incredibly high energy density, huge temperatures and pressures, and that very rapidly expanded and cooled.

God saw how good the Big Bang was. God then separated matter from antimatter using baryogenesis.

God called the light “photons,” and the darkness he called “space.” Thus Big Bang nucleosynthesis came, and cosmic microwave background radiation followed–the first 379,000 years.

Then God said, “Let there be gravitational attraction of nearby matter among the slightly denser regions of the nearly uniformly distributed matter, thus letting them grow denser.” And so it happened:

God formed the gas clouds, stars, galaxies, and the other astronomical structures observable today.

God called the gas clouds, stars, galaxies, and other astronomical structures “the universe.” Reionization came, and formation of stars, galaxies, groups, clusters, and superclusters followed–the first 100 million years.

Then God said, “Let gravitional attraction allow the retention of an atmosphere that includes water, and let temperatures plummet, so that the crust of the planet may accumulate on a solid surface.” And so it happened: the planet underwent a period of heavy asteroidal bombardment, steam escaped from the crust while more gases were released by volcanoes, additional water was imported by bolide collisions, clouds formed and rain appeared.

God called the dry land “the earth,” and the basin of the water he called “the oceans.” God saw how good it was.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring an endosymbiotic relationship between a cyanobacterium and a non-photosynthetic eukaryotic organism, creating a lineage that eventually led to photosythesizing eukaryotic organisms in marine and freshwater environments, which will eventually evolve into larger multicellular photosynthetic organism which will be the ancestors of land plants: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it.” And so it happened:

the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it. God saw how good it was.

The Paleozoic came, and the Mesozoic followed–the next 14,935,000,000 years.

14-19 expunged for redundancy

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