By Anna Sharp
In the last CLASS Seminar of the school year, Dr. Joan Li, professor of Chinese and Asian Studies, educated the scholars on the language and culture of China. Dr. Li opened her seminar by asking the scholars what languages they knew, either from school or from individual study. Although a few were learning other languages like Korean or Japanese as a hobby, most had studied Spanish in school. With this in mind, Dr. Li posed a thought to the scholars: what if you told your family you wanted to study Chinese in college? She then answered her own question, saying, “They would say why? Are you crazy?” Dr. Li explained that Chinese is the most widely spoken first language in the world, yet only around four percent of American foreign language programs contain Chinese. People think it is an incredibly difficult language to learn, so they do not bother with it.
In contrast, Chinese children begin learning English at three years old. The Chinese are also far more familiar with American culture than we are with theirs. To demonstrate this, Dr. Li pulled up a photo of President Obama with China’s President Xi. She explained that people in China love Obama so much they often wear t-shirts with his picture on them, but most Americans cannot even name the president of China. Fortunately for the scholars, Dr. Li considers learning Chinese to be a rewarding long-term investment. “You are going to experience it,” she told them. “Chinese is not difficult, it’s just different.”
And experience it they did. The scholars started off learning how to count to ten, including the Chinese method of counting on one hand. After mastering one through ten, they moved onto a different kind of hands on practice—writing Chinese characters on dry erase boards. While the scholars practiced writing characters stroke by stroke, Dr. Li conveyed both the facts and the beauty of the Chinese language. She explained that the same characters are used today that were used thousands of years ago and that radicals are common strokes found across the language that indicate meaning and often reflect Chinese cultural ideas. For example, as the scholars practiced writing the character hao (好), which means ‘good,’ Dr. Li explained that the radicals found in the characters stand for ‘woman’ and ‘son.’ Therefore the word ‘good’ is connected to the traditional Chinese cultural idea that good is when a woman gives birth to a son.
The pīnyīn was another component of Chinese characters that the scholars learned about. This is the phonetic translation of a character that is used on an English keyboard. One can type the pīnyīn and the computer or smartphone will provide the Chinese character for it. Dr. Li also used the concept of the pīnyīn to explain the four tones of the language. In spoken Chinese, words with the same pīnyīn can have four different meanings depending on the tone of voice they are spoken in. Dr. Li demonstrated the different tones using the pīnyīn ‘ma.’ Depending on the tone, ‘ma’ can mean mother, hemp, horse, or scold. She made the scholars laugh, asking, “Are you calling your mom or are you calling your horse?”
After this, Dr. Li had everyone put their new knowledge into one final practice. They stood up and shook hands, using correct tones to say ni hao (你好), which means ‘hello.’ As it was the end of the seminar, ‘goodbye’ may have been more fitting—but perhaps the scholars were just saying hello to learning Chinese.