Bill Price's Language Page

Foreign languages has been a life-long hobby, and so far I've studied about three dozen of them.  I am fluent in German, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian, and can read about a dozen more with various degrees of proficiency. Why do I do this? Because they are there. I've rarely had any practical goal in mind. I just enjoy exploring new languages and seeing what they "taste" like.




Learning Arabic without a teacher

Arabic has had a strong appeal to me since my days in Germany back in the 1970's. I learned the alphabet and pronunciation from a Lebanese friend in 1975, and a few years later acquired a good basic foundation in the language from "Arabic Language and Grammar" by Jochanan Kapliwatzky, published in Jerusalem in 1940. The Kapliwatzky book (at least vol's 1 and 2) is the best Arabic textbook for beginners that I have ever seen. There are a lot of really bad textbooks out there, and I am fortunate to have found one that actually teaches.

My goal is to be able to read Modern Standard Arabic with reasonable fluency, and this has proven to be quite a challenge for two reasons: 1) the paucity of really good learning materials, and 2) the difficulty of looking up words in a dictionary.

Looking up words in a dictionary can be quite a challenge. Contrary to what many people would think, the difficulty lies not in the fact that Arabic uses an "unfamiliar" alphabet, but rather in the way that the words themselves are constructed.

Nearly all Arabic words are derived from a root of three consonants. In order to look up the word, you first have to know what the these three consonants are. Sometimes this is easy to tell, but in many cases it is not. These three root consonants can be camouflaged by prefixes, suffixes, and various mutations that occur due to "weak" consonants. For the beginner, tracking down the root can be a long, tedious, and frustrating process. To make matters even worse, Arabic is written with consonants only. Vowels are indicated by a system of "vowel points", marks that appear above and under the letters. These vowel points are usually only printed in children's books and in the Koran, or in certain situations to avoid ambiguity. This is a really big nightmare for a beginner, and especially for a beginner who has no teacher.

I consider myself to be pretty savvy with language learning, and I can only imagine how hard this must be for the average Joe. I once read a newspaper article about teaching Arabic in American universities, and I was shocked to read that it supposedly takes up to six weeks for students just to learn the alphabet! (I don't think it took me any more than one or two days.) But believe me, learning the alphabet is child's play compared with trying to parse an unfamiliar verb form that has no vowel points.

I am at least very fortunate to have found two excellent dictionaries. The first is the 5th edition of Baranov's "Arabsko-russkij Slovar'", published in Moscow, 1976, a ponderous tome that could be used as a door stop. (There's a lot to be said about good old-fashioned Soviet scholarship.) It's all in Russian, but that suits me just fine since I read Russian fluently. The other is Hans Wehr's "A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic", a standard English-language reference work that I was lucky enough to stumble across in a library sale for the ridiculously low price of one dollar. (Hard-cover, and in good condition!) Wehr's dictionary is generally trumpeted to be one of the best available, but I am finding Baranov's to be slightly better. Not only does the Baranov dictionary seem to be more complete, but all the main verb forms are spelled out explicitly (whereas Wehr blithely lists them as "II", "VIII", etc.).

And now I come to one of my main beefs with many Arabic textbooks - namely, the practice of omitting vowel points. This, supposedly, is done to prepare the student for reading Arabic books and newspapers which do the same. But for a textbook, especially a beginning or intermediate textbook, vowel points should always be printed! For goodness sake, help the learner as much as you can! The student of Arabic will have plenty of opportunity to read vowel-less text as soon as he gets out into the "real world", but as long as you have him in a learning environment, show him those vowel points! Show all of them, all the time! There should be NO EXCEPTIONS! Give the learner plenty of exposure to the voweling! The more the correct voweling is reinforced with the learner, the easier it will be for him when he's thrown out into the cold, cruel world of naked Arabic consonants.

Some thoughts on learning Chinese

Chinese has the dubious reputation of being one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. Actually, Chinese is a very simple language, completely devoid of all the complicated grammatical baggage of tenses, plurals, genders, conjugations, inflections, and grammatical cases that burden many European languages as well as our native English. Have you ever wondered why the "stereotyped" Chinese way of speaking English sounds like "baby talk"? That's because they're speaking Chinese with English words.

There are two things that make Chinese difficult for English speakers. The first is the pronunciation, and the other is the writing system. If you can overcome these two things, then Chinese turns out to be one of the easiest languages on the planet. Unfortunately, these are the first things a beginner encounters, and that's what discourages so many people from learning it. With learning most other languages, things start out easy and then get harder and harder as one progresses. With Chinese it's the other way around. All the hard things are up front.

One of the key elements of Chinese pronunciation is the tonal system. There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese. A tone is not just an intonation, but an integral part of a word. It is as important as a vowel. "Pen", "pin", "pan", and "pun" are all different words in English. In Chinese, "ma" pronounced with the four different tones are all different words. Let's face it. If you have a tin ear and can't carry a tune, then you're going to have a rough time with Chinese. If, on the other hand, you have a good ear for music, then you will probably have no problem with Chinese pronunciation.

The writing system is something else that starts out hard and then gets easier. Everybody knows that written Chinese looks radically different from English, German, or even Russian. To a non-Chinese all those characters look like a meaningless jumble of "chicken scratches". But after you learn a few basic characters you start seeing some patterns. Things start falling into place. When I come across an unfamiliar Chinese character, it is no longer a chaotic mass of lines, but usually just two familiar component parts, put together in a way that I have never seen before. One part usually gives a clue to the meaning of the character, and the other part gives a clue to the character's pronunciation.

If I had any advice to give to the beginning Chinese student, I would say this: Learn the pronunciation first, and learn it well. It took me two full weeks of drills to master it back when I started - and I have an unusually high aptitude for languages. For the average Joe this time period should probably be at least tripled. If you don't get the pronunciation down pat from the get-go, then you're going to be very confused and discouraged later on. Unfortunately, many of the Chinese language courses and textbooks out there don't do a very good job of teaching pronunciation. My recommendation is to get the tapes that go along with John DeFrancis' "Beginning Chinese" textbook and go through all the pronunciation drills. It's a very thorough and systematic presentation, and I am so lucky to have started out on my adventure of learning Chinese with this series back in 1969.

Learn the spoken language first before learning how to read Chinese characters. With most other languages this is not a big issue, since most other languages use a phonetic alphabet. But Chinese is different. I think that for most people, learning how to speak and read at the same time is too much of a burden. Just learn the spoken language first with the help of the "pinyin" romanization, and after you have made some progress in that it's much easier to step into the world of Chinese characters. Again, I would recommend John DeFrancis' "Beginning Chinese" series, followed by the "Beginning Chinese Reader", parts 1 and 2. The John DeFrancis textbooks are without question the best language textbooks I have ever seen anywhere, for any language.

One last thought. If you're going to learn Chinese, you should learn it with the standard pronunciation. Standard pronunciation is the Mandarin of educated speakers from Beijing. This standard accent is universally recognized by all Chinese, on the Communist mainland as well as in Nationalist China (Taiwan) and overseas, as the "correct" way to speak Chinese. If you use the standard pronunciation and learn it well, you will win the respect and admiration of your Chinese friends.

The Germans standardized their language by inventing a brand-new one, "Hochdeutsch" ("High German"), as a synthesis of elements from existing dialects. No single local dialect (with the possible exception of the German spoken in the area around Hannover) completely resembles High German. The Chinese, however, took a different approach to standardizing their language. They chose an existing dialect, namely, the Mandarin as spoken in Beijing, and elevated it to a national standard. This is the language known to mainland Chinese as "Putonghua" ("common speech") and to the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan as "Guoyu" ("national language"). It is probably the only thing in the world that the Communists and the Nationalists agree on.

Let me say this to all those mavericks out there who are planning to learn Chinese from their Chinese friends. There's no reason a beginning student of Chinese should learn a non-standard accent, no matter how widespread and popular it may be. I am specifically referring to the way Mandarin is spoken by the Taiwanese. Taiwanese speakers of Mandarin typically do not distinguish between "zh" and "z", "ch" and "c", and "sh" and "s", all six of which are distinct phonemes in standard Mandarin. In Taiwan these three pairs are merged together as "z", "c", and "s". For instance, the words "shan" (mountain) and "san" (three), two separate and distinct words in standard Mandarin, are both pronounced by the Taiwanese as "san". "Shiren" (poet) and "siren" (private person) both come out as "siren". "Baozhi" (newspaper) becomes "baozi", and "chifan" (eat) is "cifan".

(I might add that the Taiwanese don't have a monopoly on this problem. There are other dialects of Mandarin that do the same thing, but I am personally most familiar with the Taiwanese variety.)

Chinese is notorious for an overabundance of homonyms, but when phonemes are blended together in this manner the situation becomes even worse. As a student of Chinese who learned the standard pronunciation, my first encounter with this accent was really confusing. It took me quite a while to get used to it, and it still grates on my ears somewhat.

I recently had an interesting experience with a friend who is attempting to learn Chinese. She was curious about the pronunciation of the "Zhong" in "Zhongguo" ("China"). She asked me and a Taiwanese friend about it. I pronounced it properly as "zhong", but my Taiwanese friend pronounced it as "zong". She noticed the difference - but since my Taiwanese friend was a native speaker she of course assumed that my pronunciation was wrong. It was quite an awkward moment. How do you explain to a novice that a native speaker is not necessarily an ideal model? An equivalent situation in American English would be, let's say, a Chinese learner of English asking an American from Tennessee about the pronunciation of the word "eye". Just because the native speaker from Tennessee says "ahh", it doesn't necessarily mean that the Chinese learner should imitate him!

Standard pronunciation is taught in Taiwanese schools, but in practice hardly anyone from Taiwan uses it in normal speech. They are all aware of this difference, though, and sometimes they attempt to adjust their speech to sound more "standard" when the occasion warrants it. The problem is, however, that most Taiwanese speakers don't remember when they're supposed to use "zh/ch/sh" and when "z/c/s", and the result is often an odd-sounding hybrid. Even more curious is the practice of hypercorrection. In this case the speaker converts ALL occurrences of z/c/s into their retroflex counterparts zh/ch/sh, even in words where z/c/s is correct! To the speaker this may sound like he's using standard Mandarin, but to anyone who knows better it sounds really comical. (Kind of like: "She shellsh shea shellsh by the shea shore." Do you shee what I mean? Shoundsh pretty shilly, doeshn't it?)

A joke in German that I found somewhere on the Net:

Ist ein Tscheche beim Augenarzt. Der Arzt hält ihm die Buchstabentafel vor, auf der steht "C Z W X N Q Y S T A C Z", und fragt ihn: "Können Sie das lesen?" - "Lesen?" ruft der Tscheche erstaunt aus, "Ich kenne den Kerl!"

My name in Chinese:

Bai Wei Lian

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