Learning a foreign language can be very rewarding. But it can also be very frustrating. Chinese sometimes seems to be unfairly frustrating in many ways.
I’ve been thinking about outlets for that frustration and I’ve decided that the one I’m most prone to is complaining about the Chinese language. I’ve found the following to be true about my linguistic complaining:
- I usually complain to other foreigners (especially those who are also trying to learn Chinese).
- I don’t mind complaining in front of Chinese people.
- I almost always complain about unchangeable, ingrained parts of the language (like the fact that there are tones).
- I use the word “they” when complaining about the language to mean “Chinese people” or “speakers of Chinese.”
- I prepare my complaints ahead of time so that when I meet a sympathetic listener I’m ready.
- It feels good to complain.
However, despite the temporary good feelings I may get from venting, I’ve come to believe that linguistic complaining is overall a very destructive activity. This may come as a surprise since I’ve occasionally even used this blog for some ranting. Let’s just say I’m trying to turn over a new leaf.
But before I explain why I feel I’ve got a problem and I’m trying to quit, let me give some examples of the type of complaining I’m most prone to so it’ll be easier to imagine my plight.
Types of Linguistic Complaining
Probably the most common category for me is the tones. I find it unfair that I’ve got to learn two things for each word (the word itself and the tone with which to say it). I also find it strange that Chinese people can understand the words of songs (which follow the “tones” of the melody rather than the tones the dictionary gives for each word) but can’t understand the words I’m saying with the wrong tones. I’ve often felt that a fruit vendor or someone “misunderstood me on purpose and knew full well what I meant!”
How do you say something in Chinese? Well there might be a whole lot of words for it and every dictionary you look in might give you a different word. I’ve often been frustrated that “They have so many words for the same thing!” in Chinese. There are also some divergent concepts where Chinese has two or more different words for something we’ve only got one word for (for example “thin” and “thick” are different in Chinese depending on the shape of the object).
One of the side effects of only having 409-ish syllables in Chinese plus the 5 tones is that a whole lot of words sound the same. This makes listening especially difficult. I’ve found myself getting angry when a student asked me in class (without any context), for example: “How do you say shíwù in English?” My brain immediately starts pumping out permutations of all the meanings those syllables could have with those tones (here are the four in the dictionary) and I have no way of knowing which one the student meant without resorting to hanzi or some sort of clarifying discussion.
4. Lack of Practice Partners
Over my five years in China, it’s been a real “feast or famine” regarding Chinese language practice partners. Fact is: you can’t learn Chinese (well, most people can’t) unless there’s someone who’s willing to talk to you in Chinese. During times when I’ve been isolated or unable to find people who don’t want to talk to me just to improve their English, I’ve often said to myself, “They’re so selfish! I’m trying to learn THEIR language and no one’s helping me!”
Effects of Complaining
The above examples are meant to help you identify whether you too are prone to linguistic complaining. If you are, it’s of course up to you also to decide if you think it’s a good use of your energy. For me, personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that no good comes of the type of complaining I’ve described.
1. It Torpedoes My Motivation
When I complain about these things, all of which are out of my control to change, I find that a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness quickly grows. I start thinking, “It’s not getting better, and I’ve already been trying this long. Maybe I’ve done about as much as I can with this language.”
2. It Torpedoes My Relationships with Chinese Friends
Imagine for a moment I have my own children. I don’t want my neighbor to come over and list all the bad things my kids do. I know my kids aren’t perfect, but I’m stuck with them. And there are a lot of good things they do too.
Well, as polite as our Chinese friends may be when listening to rants against their language, they would probably rather talk about something else. It’s out of their control as much as it is out of mine. But I’ve actually (shockingly!) found myself blaming individual Chinese friends of mine for “this language” and its perceived flaws. It really put a damper on our relationship. I’ve often wondered if that’s one contributing factor to those dry spells when I didn’t have Chinese friends who wanted to speak Chinese with me.
I’m amazed at how emotional I can get over these issues. Some people get angry about sports teams. I’ve gotten angry about measure words. No one wants to be around angry people on a prolonged basis.
3. It Makes Me Proud
If I could sum up the problem with linguistic complaining in one sentence it would be:
“When I complain, I feel powerful and it gives me an artificially inflated sense of who I am in this country and the whole universe for that matter.”
When I complain about something as ancient and complex as the Chinese language, I’m setting myself up as a sort of “Linguistic God.” I’m actually thinking thoughts like, “If I’d created the language I would have done things very, VERY differently.” As if I can even take credit for anything in my own language!
Zěnme Bàn? 怎么办?
Now that I’ve identified the fact that I’m a linguistic complainer and that it’s a problem for me, the issue becomes how to avoid slipping back into those tendencies to complain. As with all complaining, the root is actually thinking.
The key, for me, is to still feel free to think honestly about the language and the language-learning process, without being negative. Many of the solutions I’ve come up with have come about by thinking and speaking honestly about difficulties I’ve encountered.
But problems arise when I start thinking negatively about things I have no control over (for example the fact that the language has tones at all).
For example, I’ve found I need to avoid thoughts in the following general categories:
- “Chinese is a bad language.”
- “English (or some other language) is better because of ____.”
- “If I were trying to learn a different language I wouldn’t be feeling this way.”
Such thoughts put the blame for how I’m feeling on the language. In fact, I’m in charge of my own emotional response to the language and the thoughts I allow myself to entertain. Besides, no one is forcing me to continue attempting to learn the language or even stay in China for that matter.
I’m now convinced that, regardless of the difficulties inherent in learning Chinese (and there are many), complaining about them is of no benefit to me (or anyone) and only leaves me angry or discouraged. Complaining makes me feeling powerful and it may even be entertaining to listen to. But I’ve found that the long-term costs outweigh the temporary benefits.
Thus ends the confession of a linguistic complainer.