Last Thursday evening, Dr. Joan Li of the Department of Foreign Languages asked the Scholars to get past the attitude that learning Chinese is impossible so they could learn what Chinese can do for them. After discussing the widespread use of Chinese (20% of the world’s population speaks it) and the significance of China on the world stage, she worked with the scholars to learn a bit more about using the language itself.
Many Scholars cited the pictographic nature of written Chinese as one difficulty in learning the language. However, she encouraged Scholars to understand that a person could survive in a Chinese-speaking culture who knew only three hundred or so characters.
Dr. Li explained how many of the characters are aggregates of other characters–hao, meaning “good,” is the aggregate of woman and son. This, along with various other words, like “slave” and “greedy,” were used to demonstrate how sexism is inscribed and passed down through language.
The development of pinyin, a phonetic system depicting Chinese sounds, has helped speakers to learn pronunciation of Chinese without having to read pictographs. Dr. Li worked with the Scholars to understand the pronunciation of the four tones of the word ma, which depending on inflection can mean “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” or “to curse or scold.”
By the end of the evening, all the Scholars had some success in reading, writing, and speaking Chinese, and many left wanting to learn more!