The horror of ideograms

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Well, I'm as recovered from my cold as I was able to get, and it is time to go. I am setting off for a trip to what everyone (following Europe) calls the Far East. (For Californians it is clearly the far west.) I head first to Hong Kong, for a few days during which I will be giving at least four lectures, and a panel session, and various other meetings (this really is not leisure time). And there is just one thing that really, really scares me about it. Perhaps you can guess.

I am really scared of that feeling of being a total illiterate. You see, I unfortunately learned to read while I was three. So I simply have no memories of a stage in life when I was not able to read — to puzzle out every piece of script I saw. Some people have memories of being intelligent people who hadn't mastered reading yet. I don't. I could always read English. Later I learned a bit of various European languages, and mastered the Greek alphabet, and a bit of Cyrillic, and I have even studied the Korean writing system a little, so almost everywhere I have ever been I can at least read the street signs, and pronounce the headlines in the newspapers (even if I can't translate them), and choose items from a menu with some hopes of knowing what I'm doing.

The major exceptions are Japan and China. I have been to Japan already, and I felt the chill of illiteracy fear as soon as I arrived. I cannot make head or tail out of written Japanese. And Chinese is worse. In countries using writing systems this complex, I am a baby once again. I have to be led around by minders, and if they ever let go of my hand I panic. I once got lost 200 yards from my hotel in Tokyo. Without the textual labels I couldn't recognize a single street. My minders have to look out for me, find me, take me to the lecture room, and choose my food for me. I feel so vulnerable.

Think of me, Language Log readers. Pray for me, if you have religious contact with a god who responds to your prayerful activities and covers the Far East. I am going out there to be an utter, babyish, blundering illiterate for nine days. There are Language Log regulars like Bill Poser and Victor Mair who could have helped me if they were coming too, but they were not free. I will be out there alone, an ashamed illiterate adult facing the horror of a universe of ideograms, every shop window sign (like the fabled message from a postmodernist mafia don in the old joke) making me an offer I can't understand.

[I know, I know, the characters are not really ideograms, in the strict sense of being single-symbol depictions of concepts; one or two commenters point this out below. But the point is that for me, it makes no difference whether they are or not. They are unintelligible to me. They are a communicative medium that I cannot penetrate at all.]


  1. peter said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    "everyone (following Europe) calls the Far East. (For Californians it is clearly the far west.)"

    Not everyone. Australians usually refer to this part of the world as the Near North, and have done so since at least the 1970s.

  2. Rachel Cotterill said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    By the end of a week in China, though I still couldn't pronounce any of them, I was starting to recognise words with meanings like 'station' and 'yuan' (the currency). You're a linguist – you'll pick it up.

    Oh, and on a technical note, I find it hard to accept that Chinese is 'worse' than Japanese, since Japanese writing can contain Chinese characters (kanji) and then a lot of extras (the hiragana/katakana syllabries).

  3. Chris Kern said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    Chinese uses more characters than Japanese in standard writing, but the majority of them only have one pronunciation. However, there are also the traditional vs. simplified forms to deal with.

    Japanese uses fewer characters than Chinese because it mixes in syllaberies with the Chinese characters, but most characters have at least 2 possible readings, and some have even more than that (notwithstanding the irregular readings that compounds can sometimes have).

    And if Victor Mair were there he would upbraid you for using the term "ideogram" to describe Chinese characters. :-)

  4. language hat said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    But syllabaries are easy enough to learn, and once you've done so you have at least a foothold. Characters are a different story. Like Rachel says, though, you'll pick up the ones you need to get around — if I survived in Taiwan, you can do so in (mainland) China! I will offer up my best Hittite prayers for your comfort and easy passage through the Middle Kingdom, just to be on the safe side.

  5. bulbul said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    Why stop at a prayer? Why not offer a sacrifice? I'll get the wood, somebody find a particularly ignorant prescriptivist, two birds, one stone…

  6. John Cowan said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    Hanzi are tough, yes, but Arabic is in some ways worse for me. Looking at a text, I don't even know how to segment the meandering serpent into graphemes.

  7. linda seebach said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

    Good luck, but don't try too hard. I once heard someone talk about her preparations for traveling in China, which included learning the characters for "toilet." So once when her tour group stopped for a break, she carefully followed the signs to the "tsetswo," which turned out to be the standard open trench. Well, it serves. And when she got back to the bus, her fellow passengers were marveling at the unusually modern, clean facilities. They had, of course, looked for signs that said "toilet," which in her advanced state of preparation she had not even seen.

  8. Fencing Bear said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    It is interesting that we literates feel shame at not being able to read. Why not adopt the position of most of humanity for most of history and simply soak up the world without the aid of written signs? I know, I panic, too, when I can't read the writing, but it would be an interesting exercise to imagine oneself back into the not-so-distant past when reading was an unusual skill, rather than baseline.

  9. popupchinese said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 6:35 pm

    We (meaning our motley assortment of China correspondents) are regular readers of yours Geoffrey. And if you're interested in getting some basic mandarin down before heading over, I'd encourage you to check out some of our lessons for absolute beginners. They're also free, which never hurts:

    China becomes a lot easier when you can trot out phrases like, "your ideographic language is not consistently ideographic" and "don't you think romanization is a better approach?" with the man on the street. Regards,


  10. David Marjanović said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

    Actually, if you have learned a little Chinese before going to China, it's even worse. Because then you keep getting the feeling that you ought to know a particular character you see, but neither the pronunciation nor the meaning pop up in your mind… and then you notice that you can't figure it out from what little context you understand either… and then it's often a false positive anyway, because what you've actually recognized is just a part of the character.

    By the end of a week in China, though I still couldn't pronounce any of them, I was starting to recognise words with meanings like 'station' and 'yuan' (the currency).

    Incidentally, if you draw a box around the latter one, you get the homophone that means "garden/park". The numerals also occur a lot in place names like subway stations.

    Regarding street signs… I don't know about Hongkong, but most streets in Beijing simply aren't labeled, even though they all have names unlike those of Tokyo.


    Cèsuǒ. Only one affricate (though an aspirated one).

    BTW, there are a couple of synonyms (presumably euphemisms) for this, all using totally different characters, so if you don't find a sign that contains I forgot which characters actually, that doesn't necessarily mean that no toilet is there.

    my best Hittite prayers

    I thought Hattic?

    (Though that's not necessarily something different. Like the Romans, the Hittites had an ever-growing pantheon, but unlike the Romans, the Hittites talked to each god in his native language.)

  11. Karen said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    Chinese is "worse" than Japanese because you can learn rather quickly to recognize the grammatical bits, so you know if it's a noun or verb, for instance.

  12. Karen said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

    Er, the grammatical bits *in Japanese*

  13. Karen Kay said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

    I lived in Japan from 1973-1976, and I was very excited to learn to read Japanese because, like you, I have no memory of learning to read English. I was 4 when I learned how to to read.

    So, I went to Japan, and studied and studied, and all of a sudden, one morning I woke up, and I was no longer sounding things out, I was reading. I felt oddly cheated!

  14. Bobbie said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

    In Japan, many airports, train stations, hotels, and restaurants have English signs, announcements or menus. Cross the street when everyone else does, or when the music starts and the vehicles stop. (Yes, there really is music at many crosswalks, often a digitized version of a Western tune.) I could not operate the copier at the local 7-11, but the most difficult thing for me was operating the washing machine in my son's apartment. I just twisted dials until the wash cycle started.

  15. Chris Weimer said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    Wouldn't it be for California the Near West with Europe as the Far East/West?

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

    I had gathered that the "ideogram" thing was a myth — that Chinese script is really a syllabary, and that Cantonese speakers said to read "Chinese" are really bilingual, and reading transcribed Mandarin.

    I wonder if this is in the same class as the mythical "Great Wall". There are certainly walls in China, some very long, some very frequently photographed, but none that connect to all the rest or built as part of a single project. We might compare the European "Great Castle Archipelago", the aggregate of European castles, built at great cost over centuries. It makes a wonderful tourist attraction, but the component castles were never collectively part of any single project.

  17. Jongseong Park said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

    I'm Korean and much better off than many of you when it comes to recognizing a fair number of the characters and even being able to guess some of their pronunciations in Chinese, but I still feel much more illiterate when I'm in China than when I'm in any part of the world that uses either the Roman, Cyrillic, or Greek alphabet. I've never been to Japan, but I suspect I would feel the same helplessness there.

    A lot of it is the guilt of being brought up in a culture where knowledge of Classical Chinese used to be part of one's education, but belonging to a generation for which that mattered less and less since we no longer used Chinese characters in writing or reading Korean. And we know it's going to be an asset in the future to learn Chinese, but are scared by the prospect of having to learn Simplified Chinese and the unfamiliar Chinese pronunciations (with tones!) instead of Traditional Chinese with the familiar Korean readings.

    So I look at signs and things written in Chinese, the letterforms are awfully familiar, I maybe recognize a few characters and even a few words, but I keep thinking I'm rubbish for not being able to remember more and that I ought to know the characters better than that. It's maddening.

  18. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

    @ John Cowan – "Arabic is in some ways worse for me"

    For me too, and I was born in Beirut, which luckily had plenty of western commercial and road signage and names (we lived on Rue Madame Curie). When, much later, I travelled in several Arab countries, I found pretty much everywhere I went had plenty of western alphabet signage, which offset the sense of illiteracy. Even Iran, at least in Tehran, has bilingual road signs.

    It was noticeable when I went, in 1994, to an area that was lacking in western signage – Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, which is a Roman temple but also a modern town occupied by Hezbollah types where the signs were exclusively Arabic, as I recall. It felt alien, which is of course faintly ridiculous.

    In Tokyo on my one visit, whenever I stopped in the street and consulted a map some passer-by would stop within seconds and help out. Mind you, that was 20 years ago.

  19. Chris Kern said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

    Nathan: That's more or less correct; Chinese characters (as used in China) are essentially an extremely redundant syllabery. John DeFrancis' book "Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy" is a good resource for this issue.

  20. Stuart said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    "Australians usually refer to this part of the world as the Near North, and have done so since at least the 1970s."

    Really? "The Near North" makes sense, but an equivalent usage has not caught on here in NZ. Also, in my 35 years of verbal and written communication with friends, family members and business contacts across the ditch, starting in the early 70s, I've never heard the phrase before. Clearly, the Australians I have contact with are not familiar with the term.

  21. Scott said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

    You aren't the only one dealing with the "Far East" concept:

    Every once in a while, it's nice to be totally lost in a foreign land. Rather than being scared, try to look at it with a sense of adventure! The people in China are really friendly, so try to have a nice time! Good luck!

  22. Faith said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

    In another John DeFrancis book, which I am reading in his memory, "Visible Speech," he seems to come down on the side of written Japanese being worse than Chinese.

  23. Sarah S said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

    One of my cousins has a learning disability that seems to have pitted him against the written word. He had been staying with a friend in Japan for more than a week before he realized that he couldn't read the street signs. He hadn't been in the habit of reading them at home in America, either. The realization didn't trouble him.

    One doesn't usually think of a learning disability in terms of its benefits, but I think he's found one.

  24. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

    Re: Linguists not reading things — When Otto Jespersen was lecturing at Harvard in the late 30s someone questioned something he'd written on the board in cursive Cyrillic. "What, you can't read cursive Cyrillic?" he said, "You lingvists! You ought to could!"

    Recounted to me during a discussion of modal verbs by someone who was there.

  25. Pinyin Info said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

    I certainly understand the feeling. But using the term ideograms? At Language Log?!
    OK, start here: The Ideographic Myth (from a book already mentioned by other commenters: The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis).

  26. Nathan Myers said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

    Chris: Thank you. "Redundant", meaning there are many fewer spoken syllables than characters in common use, so the glyph to use writing a word depends on the word? I seem to recall that there are about twelve hundred syllables, and three or four thousand commonly used glyphs. I suppose that in spelling a word correctly written with an uncommon glyph, if one doesn't know it, one substitutes a better-known glyph with the same sound, thereby revealing one's poor education, demotic sympathies, or both.

    The Great Wall is the only man-made structure believed visible from the moon by people who don't believe we've been to the moon.

  27. Greg said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

    Japanese is totally worse than Chinese. To top it off, romanization or even removal of Chinese characters would result in it being even worse yet — so many freaking homophones due to relatively simple sound system and the extensive use of Sino-Japanese words. Goodness!

  28. YC said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

    I think Japanese is more attractive to westerners because it's easier for them to pronounce than Chinese. It seems almost impossible for foreigners not born in China to speak Mandarin like a native. And also the Japanese have manga.

  29. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

    GKP's final sentence puzzles me. And I bet I'm not the only LL reader who hasn't heard the old joke about a message from a postmodernist mafia don. Could he or anyone else who knows it please retell it? By the way, my wife is not long back from China, having visited some quite remote parts. Most of the time she had a Chinese colleague accompanying her, but for her last few days in Shanghai she was on her own, and outside her hotel she found it quite challenging.

  30. Amy said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

    I was intrigued by the fact that I saw the character for my Chinese surname all over the billboards in Taiwan. I was told by the gentlemen who gave me my name that 克 kè: /subdue/to overcome/ was the same surname given to Clinton when he was president. Cool! So why was it so popular on billboards…? I couldn't imagine a context that would fit that meaning. Finally, I asked. 克 kè is also the character used for "kilogram". Yes, my friends call me Kilogram in China.

  31. dr pepper said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

    I didn't learn to read until i was almost 6, but i also can't remember the process. And in what few memories i have further back, i always knew about the connection between letters and sounds. I can remember my mother reading The Cat in the Hat to me and pointing to the words as she spoke them. Later i went to a kindergarten where they used pamphlet sized reading books. When a student could read all the words in the vocabulary list in the back of a book they'd be given the book as a prize. I got all of them.

    I do remember the first time i became aware of an irregular spelling, It was "head". I felt a little confused and disappointed. I suppose in retrospect i was feeling the chill but freshening winds of descriptivism.

    That being said, i have, at least temporarily, learned other symbol systems since. Musical notation. APL. Units in video games. What i find daunting about chinese ideograms is their complexity relative to the size of standard printed characters, which makes them hard to distinguish at a glance.

  32. Josh said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

    Peter said: "Australians usually refer to this part of the world as the Near North, and have done so since at least the 1970s."
    /first comment

    I've mever, ever heard that, and I've lived in Australia my entire life of 34 years. We call it 'Asia'


  33. Nick Lamb said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 11:39 pm

    Simon, the punchline of the joke is already given away – The Godfather movie established the idea of making someone "an offer they can't refuse" meaning that they'll be intimidated into accepting. The joke is that this don makes people "an offer they can't understand" instead. Variants blame this on all manner of things thought to make someone incomprehensible, including him having some unusual accent (Irish, for example). Presumably our host has heard a version in which the joke is that postmodernism is difficult to understand.

  34. Max said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 11:43 pm

    Can you please include some details of your lectures in HK? I live here, and I'd be interested to attend. Thank you.

  35. Eve said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 12:22 am

    At least in Hong Kong, you'll be completely fine. Everything here is so completely set up for tourists, you'll be able to get along just fine in English. Almost all road/street signs are labeled in English as well, and you can always stop people to ask for directions in English. Most of them will be able to answer just fine.

    Out of curiosity, where will you be giving these lectures?

  36. Ozlang said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 12:41 am

    Stuart: It seems to me also that "Near North" is relatively infrequent in Australian useage? We often speak pretty indiscriminately just about "Asia" — or name the specific country?

    Incidently, when I was in a Catholic elementary school in the forties (hmmph!! :-) the (I think) Sacred Heart Missionary Fathers in Australia distributed a magazine called "The Far East". Europe dies hard!!


  37. David Ivory said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 1:06 am

    Hong Kong is a fairly English city in many respects, founded by the English and built by the Chinese… and it shows. Victoria Park, Queen's Road Central, King's Road, Wellington Street, Wyndham Street, Quarry Bay, Fortress Hill, Stanley… and more. Kowloon is somewhat different, yet it too has King's Park, Prince Edward, Jordan, Nathan Road. But all street signs, maps, and directions are in English and Chinese… so you won't be too lost.

    Most of the restaurant menus are bilingual too – unless you're lucky enough to find a more exotic local place where they probably have an (out of date) English menu to hand.

    To be honest it is more of a problem not being able to speak Cantonese as taxi drivers are notorious in not having much English, or understanding all the English forms of the street names. Because, yes, all those English sounding streets have Cantonese forms that often have no common basis in the English. Lyndhurst Terrace is Bai Fat Gai – or flower seller street. So even being able to read the English street names sometimes doesn't help.

    But don't fear Hong Kong – it is probably the easiest city in Asia to get around… if not the world.

  38. Stacy said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 2:14 am

    Going to China and being unable to either speak or write greatly improved my pointing and miming skills – good luck! However, it only took a few days to learn to recognize the name of my street and some foods – even if it all looks confusing, apply your skills as a linguist and it becomes at least familiar.

  39. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 2:52 am

    Thanks to Nick Lamb for explaining the joke. I must confess I never went to see The Godfather movie.

  40. Holly said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 3:43 am

    I wish you luck in your ideogram illiteracy. The first word I picked up in Japan was exit: 'leave' and 'mouth'. You'll probably end up fascinated by their surprisingly logical character combinations.

  41. David said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 3:47 am

    Well for Japan you could try to learn the katakana syllabary before you go – shouldn't be too hard and since mostly foreign words are written with it you'll be able to understand a lot just by knowing the script, like: レストラン (restoran – restaurant), バー (baa – bar), ビール (biiru – beer), ホテル (hoteru – hotel).

    Or you could learn some basic Chinese characters which would help you in both China and Japan: 人 (person) 男 (man) 女 (woman) 日本 (japan), 中国 (china), 英 (english/england)

  42. aaron said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:14 am

    I first heard that joke as "Did you hear about the Chinese Godfather? …He made him an offer he couldn't understand." but I suppose that's not PC these days. Funny it should come up in this topic though.

    To Amy:
    I speak decent Cantonese through my wife and her family, but I've never taken any classes and can only read/write a few dozen characters. I was given several nicknames and at least one formal three-word name but in the end the one that stuck was the one my mother-in-law decided to use all the time – ah mo, meaning hairy (毛). I figured I'd been called worse (sei gwai lo 死鬼佬 comes to mind). But recently I saw a sign and discovered that character is also Mao Zedong's family name! So now I don't like it anymore but I guess I'm stuck with it. I mentioned this to my MIL who was stunned for a moment – she didn't immediately associate that word with Mao but was sympathetic to my displeasure. But once named it's hard to go back.

    I have always found it hilarious how sometimes customer service type people say "westerner/sai yun/西人" to refer to me, when I have never heard this from my family or friends (who use gwai lo/ghost man/鬼佬 exclusively). In all the conversations I've eavesdropped on in the US, I have never heard anyone use the word 西人. I think the rule in HK customer service is "when talking to or around gwai lo, only say sai yun". Hilarious!

  43. aaron said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:19 am

    PS – I've noticed that there is a high level of knowledge evident in the transcribing of Chinese meanings and sounds around here. Sorry I am not able to do that with my above post as I am not literate. I'm not even 100% sure I got the traditional characters I was going for with my copy/paste job above! Thanks for putting up with a non-linguist who enjoys this blog very much.

  44. language hat said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    So now I don't like it anymore

    Kind of an odd reaction. It's not like it's uniquely associated with Mao, it's an extremely common word and character (also meaning 'flustered' and 'ten cents,' inter alia); it's as if you were bothered by plants because of Bush, or anything made of steel because of Stalin. I suggest you forget about the late Helmsman and just think of it as a Chinese word with a pleasing character.

  45. Benjamin said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    As long as you aren't 毛主席 (Chairman Mao), I'd agree with language hat!

  46. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    I would like to echo what David said about learning katakana (which ipso facto means learning something about Japanese phonology). The next step is to adapt Japanese phonology to foreign (mainly English) loanwords. David gave some examples, but you have to know that rabaa can be either 'lover' or 'rubber' and basu can be either 'bath' or 'bus'.
    When I was in Japan some 20 years ago I noticed that my camera lens was dirty and went into a photo shop to ask for renzu kuriiningu tissyuu. I got the lens-cleaning tissue that I needed, but the katakana on the package told me that I should have asked for renzu kuriiningu peepaa (paper).
    Finally one needs to learn how the meaning of words is changed. So, for example, a department in a department store (depaato) is koonaa (corner), and the women's department is redisu (ladies) koonaa.

  47. Ryan said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    Going along with that, Coby, I'll never forget how my first Japanese teacher related to the class the story of how her sister (not fluent in Japanese) was visiting her in Japan. They went somewhere, and my teacher's sister was attempting to purchase a gift card. She kept repeating the two words, and the clerks were perplexed, and she couldn't get it across until out of exasperation she resorted to "gift-o card-o." The clerks immediately understood what she wanted, and rang it right up.

  48. Supergrunch said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    I have similar literacy problems, even after about four years of learning Japanese – while many things make sense, when you come to any kanji you don't know, it's just totally unreadable. And apart from for complex compounds, knowledge of Japanese orthography doesn't really help you when reading Chinese. Incidentally, while both Japanese and Chinese have pretty bad writing systems, neither making much use of the duality of patterning of spoken language, I have to say the Japanese system is worse, despite its two syllabic scripts. Characters can have many different possible pronunciations, unlike the one-one relationship in Chinese, and even hiragana shows a few irregularities, though thankfully not so many in modern Japanese. Modern Korean orthography, of course, is nice and easy to learn as it's so logical, as are most other popular writing systems, although I've never learnt much of the orthography of Arabic, Thai, or any of the Indian languages, among others.

    The whole katakana English thing in Japanese is quite amusing. I was once trying to use a web cafe in Tokyo, and when my friend and I (both clearly Western) walked in, the guy behind the counter looked absolutely terrified – it became clear that this was because because he knew hardly any English. He got out a piece of paper they apparently gave employees in the case of such an eventuality, and started saying something like "ruudu yuu raiku tu meiku an akkaunto?" – looking at the paper, I saw a list of questions and responses in English, each with a katakana version and Japanese translation underneath. When I interrupted him and told him what we wanted in Japanese the poor guy looked immensely relieved. It's a bit futile for companies to do this kind of thing, because most katakana English is pretty opaque to native English speakers.

  49. David Marjanović said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    克 kè is also the character used for "kilogram". Yes, my friends call me Kilogram in China.

    Well, it's simply used for its sound value. That's why it crops up a lot in transcriptions of foreign words.

    I have to say the Japanese system is worse, despite its two syllabic scripts. Characters can have many different possible pronunciations, unlike the one-one relationship in Chinese

    There are a couple of exceptions in Chinese, too, but very few.

  50. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    @ David Marjanović: 克 kè is also the character used for "kilogram". Yes, my friends call me Kilogram in China.

    Well, it's simply used for its sound value. That's why it crops up a lot in transcriptions of foreign words.

    As in 星巴克 (Xīngbākè), the curious part-calque, part-phonetic Chinese version of Starbucks (Xīng = "star", bākè = approx. sound of "buck").

  51. Kevin P. Siu said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    Hong Kong won't be so bad – nearly everything in the main streets is written in both Chinese and English. Especially all the subway systems and street signs – all have English translations (mostly accurate). In fact, the subway system and bus systems usually even have English voiceovers to announce the next station.

  52. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

    I felt the same way on moving into Little Armenia in East Hollywood. Not actually feeling illiterate, because most street signs are still in English or Spanish, but that the ones that actually are in Armenian give me absolutely no sense of how to pronounce them. And I gave up on trying to learn the alphabet when I realized I'd have to make a distinction between ejective and non-ejective voiceless stops, which is a distinction I still don't completely understand.

  53. marie-lucie said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 7:28 am


    "ejective" is another word for "glottalized", that is with a pre- or co-articulated glottal stop, released at the same time as the stop.

  54. David Marjanović said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

    I've read conflicting claims on whether Armenian has ejective stops or not. The more detailed descriptions I've happened to come across say it's just a distinction between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops… though very, very strange things happen word-finally, where the contrast is kept!

    This might also be an issue of East vs West Armenian…

    Oh, and:

  55. Michelle said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 7:20 pm


    "I think Japanese is more attractive to westerners because it's easier for them to pronounce than Chinese. It seems almost impossible for foreigners not born in China to speak Mandarin like a native. And also the Japanese have manga."

    Manga aside :) – I think this is interesting. I've been living in China for nearly a decade and agree that it's almost impossible for foreigners not born in China to speak Mandarin like a native (that should probably read, not born in northern China, but…). but isn't this true for everybody learning a language that they weren't born into? I don't think there are many Chinese (or if you like, westerners) living in Japan who speak Japanese like a native. And those friends of mine living in the US long term find it hard to speak like a native speaker.

    However, i must say, this should never be a goal for a language learner! Competence / proficiency, ok, but speaking like a native speaker? not possible except in very rare cases.

    That said, I know very many 'westerners' who speak excellent Chinese – wish i could count myself among them. As for pronunciation, can't compare to Japanese – but will say that in my (professional) experience, i can say that mandarin native speakers generally have much more accurate English pronunciation than Japanese native speakers. Not sure if that indicates that English speakers have an easier time with Mandarin than Japanese.

  56. dr pepper said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    Anyone know what techniques are used to teach new languages to spies?

  57. Aviatrix said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 1:18 am

    Estonia was for me the first country where I had nothing to grasp the language by. The phrasebook which was my only hope was stolen off my bicycle the first day, and a few days later I sat in my tent and wrote in my journal, "I now know why babies cry."

    I have a friend who travelled in rural China by bicycle and rail. Often in a train station when he indicated to people that he did not understand, they would start drawing the characters in the air. They were used to meeting people who did not speak the language the same way, but usually that could be overcome by the common written language.

    And I adore your post about the bitches. English is a minefield, probably as bad as a tonal language. When you're among linguists, go for it!

  58. Nathan Myers said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

    Aviatrix: As alluded to above, evidently the notion that there is a common Chinese language that is just not spoken "the same way" is a myth. The "common" Chinese language is Mandarin, and many people in areas where it's not spoken have learned to read Mandarin, but the notion that their own words map directly to the "ideograms" is so much toxic bunkum. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many Mandarin speakers believe it, and look down on people in other areas who don't read as well.

  59. Caitlin said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    I recommend that if you go to Japan again, you pick up the two syllabaries hiragana and katakana. Katakana is used for words of foreign origin and can be immensely helpful for reading signs and the like, once you get used to the way the words change when pronounced in Japanese – e.g. bus becomes バス, read ba-su. Then at least you'll be able to order a ビール (biiru – beer) and some ラーメン (raamen – ramen noodles) or カレーライス (karei raisu – curry & rice) off the メニュー (menyuu – menu) at a レストラン (resutoran – restaurant).

  60. David Marjanović said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 9:08 am

    As for pronunciation, can't compare to Japanese – but will say that in my (professional) experience, i can say that mandarin native speakers generally have much more accurate English pronunciation than Japanese native speakers. Not sure if that indicates that English speakers have an easier time with Mandarin than Japanese.

    Mandarin and English have fairly similar pronunciations: a fairly large vowel system, all those diphthongs like [ei] and [ou] (that's not precisely what they're in English, but it's much closer than what most other languages have to offer!), no plosives that absolutely need to be voiced… so, once a Mandarin speaker gets the most common consonant clusters right, maybe learns the th sounds, and maybe stops aspirating too hard, they end up with a good pronunciation of English. Doesn't work that well the other way around, though: affricates, aspirated affricates, and tones are not trivial to learn. Also, contrary to the Well-Known Fact about "the Chinese", Mandarin speakers have little trouble with the r/l distinction because they have a sound that is (depending on the dialect) similar or identical to the English (!) r, in addition to having a l. It's the Cantonese who have ploblems with that.

    Japanese is more like Italian or Russian or (for consonants) French, and the English r is about halfway between the English l and the Japanese r…

  61. marie-lucie said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    Are the Chinese speakers who seem to have problems pronouncing final or pre-consonantal consonants in English, Cantonese?

  62. Kevin Iga said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    English in Hong Kong: agreed, it's everywhere and street signs always have the English versions.

    One complication in Hong Kong is that there is no standardized or even majority rule for romanizing Cantonese words. The largest minority pronunciation is the Yale romanization, but there are other systems that are common, and sometimes I suspect the transliteration happened ad hoc without a particular system in mind, especially for place names:

    Mong Kok sounds like Mong guk, Sham Shui Po sounds like Sam söü bo, Kowloon Tong sounds like Gau löng tong, Tsim Sha Tsui sounds like ʤim sə dzʤöü, and that's just the subway stops on the Red Line! (Yale Romanization would have Mong gok, saam seui po, gau leung tong, and jim sa jeui, I think, not counting the tone markings.)

    Dealing with taxi drivers: Just get a business card from your hotel (they all have them) and keep it ready for when you are lost and just need to get home. Hand it to the driver.

  63. vanya said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

    I don't understand this feeling – I am really scared of that feeling of being a total illiterate. – at all. That's what I loved about traveling to Japan for the first time. Most of us, certainly those posting here, have probably been literate in our native languages for literally as far back as we can remember. I find it very exciting to be in an environment where I can recapture the disorientation of being illiterate.

  64. Dave Malinowski said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 2:33 am

    Glad to see all the comments here with advice, help, and most of all, little steps to take in chipping away at feelings of 'infancy in illiteracy'. It takes a lot of courage to face the unknown and be the stranger…

  65. Sili said,

    March 22, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    Am I the only one who didn't learn to read until about nine (I think)? Not that I for that matter have any reason of what went before for that reason, though.

    I was scared enough when I first had to get around England on my own. The idea of going further afield does not appeal to me at all.

    Yes, I'm a coward.

  66. doviende said,

    March 26, 2009 @ 6:32 am

    I think what you need is not necessarily literacy, but some sense of the characters. There are plenty of examples of people on the internet who have succeeded in learning 2000+ chinese characters in 3 months (or sometimes less)….but you don't necessarily need to know all these to just feel comfortable around them.

    There are only a few hundred components that are used to make up a full character, and many of these are in themselves full characters. Of those, only 100 or so are common. If you learned these hundred or so, then you'd be able to look at most chinese characters and think "aha, that character is composed of 2 parts, both of which i recognize."

    In this way, you could gain easy familiarity with the characters, and also quick memory of them so you could look them up later if necessary.

  67. Lee Klinger said,

    April 17, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

    I'm teaching English in Korea. I chose Korea partly because I wanted to be able to read right away, and hangeul is easier to master than several thousand characters. It's fun to watch students jump when I read their name badges.

  68. J. Goard said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 11:10 pm


    Same reasoning here. Boss didn't like me knowing any Korean, though. (Not that I wasted class time, just that the kids knew I was studying it.) Became a grad student in 2008. (Chonnam Natl. Univ. in Gwangju). Where you at?

    I need to be reminded how great hangeul is right now, since I'm at the point of trying to read difficult texts with a lot of unknown vocbulary, in small print, and the tiny differences between vowels are killing my eyes.

    Regularity has its great advantages, particularly in the early stages of learning, but I can easily see how more idiosyncratic writing systems pay off later, in faster and less error-prone bottom-up processes.

  69. Meh said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    You know what's hard? ENGLISH.

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