Chinese and English: the Languages


I’ve always wanted to write something about the two languages I have learned and come to love. Or even, to write something about language in general. There used to be a debate between me and cc about how useful Linguistics actually is. I don’t remember the details but do remember that I took a very practical stand on the topic. In my eyes language is just a tool. And that’s all it is, a tool, a “means to an end“, a “device for doing work“. Linguistics is nice and interesting but I was not sure how much practical use there really is to it.

The only thing you should worry about a tool is simply how to use it, to achieve what it is intended for. You use a scissor in order to cut better (you don’t really spend lots of time studying its origin do you). A washing machine to keep your clothes clean. A video recorder, to remember a piece of your life.

In language’s case, it is to communicate.

And some people have more than one tool for this job (they are called bi-lingual or multi-lingual).

The interesting thing here is, no matter how many tools you have, at any given time you can only use one of them. And when you have stopped using one of the them for a very long time, you find it harder and harder to pick it back up and use it as effectively as before. This is especially true in the case where the tool, the language, was not born, but learned.

English is my learned language, Chinese, born.

There cannot be a pair of languages with bigger differences than these two.

When I think of Chinese the language, I think of words like “rich”, “poetry”, and “history”;
When I think of English, I think of it as the language of the modern world. The language to get things done. The language you never dwell on, rarely think much about. It conveys the same meaning in 5 words that takes Chinese 50.

Compared with Chinese, English looks straightforward and bland;
Compared with English, Chinese looks convoluted and contrived.

English is great for lovers, when subtlety is less valuable than candor;
Chinese is great for poets, whose spirit can never be limited by the richness.

If English is a song, Chinese is music.

Sometimes you want to sing to others;
Sometimes, you sit down and play for them.

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33 responses to “Chinese and English: the Languages

  1. 你不知道我现在有多羡慕你的英文,嘿嘿。

  2. 你不知道我现在有多羡慕你的中文啊。。。

  3. 我也有同感,你的英文太棒了。很有母语的感觉。

    最近晨暄借了本文化人类学的书,我也跟着看看。非常有意思。刚好就谈到语言的问题。你说的对,语言最大的功能就是交流。而交流不光是跟我们工作的同伴交流,更重要的是学习别人和前人(文字)的生存经验。要不会语言(口头和文字语言),我们根本无法获得谋生的技巧。想想,我们会做得任何事情,不都是从语言里来的么?

    语言学有很多用处,我觉得最大的用处是探索我们的思维方式。我已经发现说英文的人跟说汉语的人的思维方式有很大的不同。最简单的,英语习惯把定语从句后置。先把最重要的,主句的主谓宾都往前放,然后再把补充成分说出来。而汉语却是把关键的东西放在后面。这其实就是美国人和我们的思维方式的不同。他们更加直接了当,切入主题,而我们习惯先做好心理铺垫,渐入佳境。不学习别人的语言,可能我们永远无法真正理解别人的思想。而现在你已经在用英文写作了,说明你已经接受了美国人的某些思维方式了 :)

  4. thanks apple, appreciated… I think when I said Linguistics is quite unnecessary I was mostly talking about us in the U.S., whether we should spend lots of time on something like Linguistics or should we put those energy into just using the language more. The more one uses a tool, the more proficient he becomes. Studying Linguistics will not improve how well one can use the tool, and in the end, for us, using the tool well is everything that matters.

    Of course, I’m not sure you are one of “us” any more…

  5. 我本来也很想像上面的人一样用华语我的母语来留话,不过真的

    ‘(English) conveys the same meaning in 5 words that takes Chinese 50.’

    I can’t agree more, and that is why I love Mandarin. I hope and try to feel and live it with all my heart. The richness, poeticalness, nostalgic it brings back. Sometimes I even wish lesser people would learn it so I get to be the lucky ones who were born to it.

    But then again, I’m really glad that I know English. It’s just the way right? I’m just thankful because of the opportunities and friends and life both languages gave me.

    I love this post of yours. More so when I thought I was at my blog until I started reading :)

  6. Thank you 3cinr3b, it’s a great feeling knowing someone I’ve never met liked what I wrote…
    I saw your profile so you must have come to the U.S. since you were very young (i guessed that because of your age and your English)… For us it was alot harder to get adjusted here, not just the language but everything

  7. You’re welcome, walkingbetween. Haha, you’re right about the young part, but I still live in Malaysia :)

    I’m surprised you’re not a native American actually. If you didn’t write in Chinese, I would never have believed you came from Beijing after college. You adjusted real well then.

    Nice ‘meeting’ you!

  8. Man, the world is even more smaller after people invented blog. Nice story in the “comments” portion! :)

  9. Sorry walkingbetween, I would agree with 3cinr3b. You said ‘(English) conveys the same meaning in 5 words that takes Chinese 50.’I feel somehow different. Mostly I write Chinese text first, English translation comes after, but the English version is always longer than the Chinese one. What you said was properbly an exception in very rare situations… ;-) But I really like the sentence” If English is a song, Chinese is music.” :-)

  10. siyu, that happens because you were translating, from your Chinese version to English version. If you try compose an article in English from scratch without thinking about translating from an already-written Chinese version, the result might be different.

    But I think you are right that they aren’t always the case in all situations. It depends on what the writing is about, an experience, a story, or an essay, a poem…

    I like this discussion, thank you.

    btw to 3cinr3b’s defense, she said “I can’t agree more”… ;-)

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  12. LIked the post:) Just wanted to say that it’s not necessarily true that you can only use one given language/tool at a time. In Montreal where I live, almost everyone speaks and understands at least English and French. It’s not uncommon to hear people chatting here switching back and forth between languages, sometimes within the same the same sentence! Some ideas are just better expressed in one language, and some feelings or concepts might not even exist in the other.
    To me, this is where linguistics becomes interesting. I think language is a reflection of the way you think, and linguistics helps map the beautiful differences in the ways people percieve and describe their worlds.

  13. I think you are right, i actually do that myself, mixing Chinese and English because I can’t find a similar word in the other language. When I wrote that I was more thinking about using one language regularly. In most cases people use one language as their main language in day to day activities, so their other language gets used less often therefore are less practiced…

    i like what you said about linguistics…

  14. I’ve always been intrigued by other languages as a child, namely French & Chinese. Since English borrows words from many languages, its birth from French and German has come a long way. I’ve always thought English was a bit limiting in descriptiveness, and your thoughts in this post may validate my sentiment. How I desire to understand Chinese, that I might have a greater arsenal of vocabulary in artistic imagery !

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