Friday, October 24, 2014

Awful languages

There's an essay every American student of German reads (or at least used to read), by Mark Twain, called, "The Awful German Language." Its most quoted words:

My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. ... it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.

I've just learned that there's a comparable essay for Chinese, not as old or quite as witty, but in its way as delightfully discouraging, David Moser's "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard." The author was a graduate student when he wrote it, 5-6 years into intensive study of the language, and found he still couldn't read even a paragraph of a newspaper article without significant dictionary assistance.
Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves "Why in the world am I doing this?" Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say "I've come this far - I can't stop now" will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.

We'll see how I fare! Doggedness isn't one of my character traits, but I'm finding learning Chinese, at least for now, a pretty joyful experience. The absurdity of it, well described by Moser, is part of the pleasure... he persisted, too! These essays have, I imagine, two lives - for those who gave up the ridiculous language in a huff, and those who have embraced their inner ridiculousness for continuing with it.

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