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Article: Spanish, Chinese, Apples, and Oranges

by Jeremy Van Sluytman, Teacher, Musician

Sometimes it seems that ever since leaving Canada in 1996, the one question
that I've been asked most often is, "Which do you prefer?"; Ecuador or
Canada, Venezuela or China, Spanish or Chinese.  I have to say that the
experiences I have had in all of those countries and with Spanish and
Chinese have done much to make the old cliché about apples and oranges so
true to me.  In fact, I might be able, to ask the question which is easier. 
Even to answer that question properly though, I would have to provide a
little background.


Ecuador, Venezuela, Spanish, and good people

Arrival at the airport in Caracas, Venezuela was hectic and disorienting,
owed in no small part that I had no idea what anyone was saying.  In fact,
when I first arrived in Venezuela, I knew absolutely nothing about the
people, the history, or Spanish.  At that point I was just wishing I knew a
little about the latter - Spanish, and why everyone seemed to be speaking it
so fast.

     During the six years that I was fortunate enough to live and work in South
America, I came to feel quite comfortable with speaking, writing, and most
importantly, listening to Spanish.  Yes, I did spend quite a lot of time
studying the grammar and vocabulary in the first few months, but I would
have to say that most of what I now know about Spanish came from listening
and asking a lot questions.  In the beginning, I learned a lot from people
who spoke enough English to understand my questions and have some sort of
conversation.  The vocabulary came with less trouble than I thought it
would.  I found there to be a lot of people who liked the chance to practice
their English in exchange for teaching me some Spanish.  I met some great,
friendly, and sometimes patient people.  Of course, there were many more
days like that first day in the airport.  I found the grammar of conjugation
of verbs in various tenses, the use of reflexive pronouns, and many other
aspects confounding.  There were times when I swore I would never get it
right.  Fortunately, a sense of humor and a lot of kind people allowed me to
eventually pick up enough to get around.  In retrospect, the whole thing
seems to have been so easy.  I repeat, in retrospect.


China, Chinese, and more good people

Over the past two years, I have been living in China.  Another
other-worldly experience which I am very thankful for.  If Ecuador and
Venezuela were apples, then this must be an orange.
     Once again, my faith in people's general willingness and ability to
overcome cultural and language differences has been reassured.  With Spanish
firmly under by belt as my "second language", I stomped into China feeling
like a man who knew.  Who knew how to get around, how to cope.etc  Well,
some of that was true.  I was not as overwhelmed by the differences I was
encountering.  What I seemed to have forgotten during the last 2 years in
Venezuela was how hard all that learning actually was at the time.  Another
thing that was very quickly and blatantly clear to me was that I did have,
despite my original misconception, some inkling of Spanish before arriving
in South America.  At the very least, in Spanish I could look at a word, and
try to sound it out.  Some words were even surprisingly close to their
English counterparts.  Of course, there were also the things I thought
hadn't stuck with me that soon came flooding back when I needed them.  Words
and phrases such as "adios", "gracias", and "No comprendo" were at least a
little hint of what I was about to try to conquer in learning about the
Spanish language.  Even as the years went by and I learned more and more, I
never really appreciated these little hints I had gained from TV and movies,
that is until I was standing in the airport in Seoul, Korea on my way to
China.  The characters seemed strange and unfamiliar to me.  I couldn't even
begin to make out what they might mean.  I have to say that even after 2
years of living in China, the experience of trying to recognize characters
is still daunting.
     I later discovered that the modern answer for the task of learning to read
Chinese characters is a form of Romanization of the sounds called "pinyin". 
Even so, it took months of reconditioning my concept of pronunciation before
I could read pinyin properly.  How would you pronounce "cai"?  Well if you
were reading pinyin it would be something like /tsa-e/.  That was a tough
one to get to stick in my head.  Further, once I had finally learned to read
what I knew it was, and not what I saw, I had to learn the tones.  In
Chinese there are 4 "tones" which denote the way a word is meant to be said
and therefore its meaning.  For example, "cai" by itself could represent any
one of 15 characters which could then be combined with other characters
resulting in 10s or even hundreds of possibilities.


What was the question again?

 Well, looking at the original question about which is easier,  I suppose I
would have to say that just as each country has it own wonders and weak
points, each language seems to have its own challenges and rewards.  The
grammar of Spanish and often the proper pronunciation of words such as
"carro" with its double-"r"-tongue-rolling terror could put many
native-English speakers at, well. a loss for words.  Chinese with its
characters, pinyin, and 4 tone pronunciation system also offer some
interesting challenges.
     I suppose in a way we're just looking at another case of apples and
oranges.  After 2 years of "studying" Spanish I felt quite comfortable in a
number of different conversations and situations (and yes, I use the term
"studying: loosely).  Because the letters were familiar to me, I was able to
read and understand Spanish quickly, and so could study by myself if I so
desired.  In my first two years of experience with Chinese, I have spent at
least as much time studying, in fact I think maybe more.  However, my
capacity for conversations beyond "Where are you from?" and "Where to?" with
taxi drivers seems to have progressed little.  I now understand the rules of
pinyin, and can study by myself.  I can recognize about 100 characters (a
drop in the bucket) and write only about a dozen without copying.  In
Chinese there is no verb conjugation which makes one very difficult aspect
of Spanish, very simple in Chinese.
     I wonder if someone had asked me in 1998 what I thought about the amount of
Spanish I had picked up what I might have said.  Are my expectations higher
because Chinese would be my 3rd language if I were to pick it up?  I have
heard that after one has worked through a second language, that other
languages tend to come somewhat more easily.  At this point, I'm not sure if
that's true.  Life is a journey, and if I have any say in it, I'm not even
half way there.  At this point, after six years of full-time Spanish
learning under my belt and only two with Chinese, Spanish seems to have been
easier to learn than Chinese in an overall sense.  Maybe to be fair to
Chinese, I'll have to revisit this question in another 4 years.

 

 

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