What can we know?
Whenever I mention to someone that I have been studying Mandarin for over 15 years, I invariably have to field one or two unanswerable questions:
- How many Chinese characters do you “know”?
What do they mean by “know”? Intimate knowledge or familiarity? Should I immediately confess that I’ve flirted with thousands? I then explain that there are many different levels of knowing ranging from: a) Simple recognition of a character within a context to; b) the ability to pronounce said character and c) the ability to write it from memory.
Still, I have to wonder what people expect in the way of an answer. Is some number supposed to display itself (odometer-like) on my forehead? Could that number fluctuate? Would it change before or after breakfast?
The other (ever so slightly annoying) question is:
- Are you fluent yet?
Maybe the person questioning me is a runner and imagines some kind of finish line at the end of a long and arduous voyage. If the lead cyclist in the Tour de France gets to wear a yellow jersey, then am I supposed to own a jacket which advertises my “Fluent Chinese Speaker!” status?
Now I don’t meant to berate the value of certificates and diplomas which attest to one’s foreign language competency, because these achievements should unabashedly be brought to the attention of prospective employers or clients. There is, nevertheless, something to be said for learning a language for its own sake. As a coach and a student of life, I am more interested in the process/journey more than the result/destination.
The metaphor of a traveler is particularly apt with regard to a language whose characters (be they simple pictograms or ideograms) have a story to tell. On this inward journey, I am often challenged, sometimes intrigued, by the linguistic landscape.
How and why we remember something is a source of fascination for me. Certain Chinese characters, despite their complexity, slip almost effortlessly into my active vocabulary whereas “simpler” characters never seem to stick on the Teflon surface of my brain. Other supposedly “friendly” character haunt and taunt me….popping up in unexpected contexts. How is it that out of thousands of different possible characters, 1 or 2 of them continually dance on the brim of my consciousness? (Please refer to my LinkedIn article or my blog on the character xiu).
Carl Gustav Jung identified this phenomenon as synchronicity….and there is a bit of that present with the study of the Chinese language. In other words, a character which repeatedly grazes our awareness does so for a reason. The journey of language learning simultaneously encourages to interact with the outside word and engage in an inner dialogue! So why would I want to end my journey by reaching my destination?
Author Profile –
Denis Niedringhaus is an Expatriate Coaching working in Paris around his passion – Chinese culture, business and language.