Synchronicity, Personal Growth and Chinese Characters by Denis Niedringhaus

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”?

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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 NiedringhausDenis Niedringhaus is an Expatriate Coaching working in Paris around his passion – Chinese culture, business and language.

 

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“Are you for REAL?” Language as a window to our soul – Matthew Hill

bubble of communicationLast month marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the Iron Curtain. This year I found myself in many training rooms with people whose parents were most affected by these changes.

A common legacy from those times is an abundance of negative language, even from the mouths of employees in dynamic global companies. I thought it pertinent to revisit negative language and ask, “What’s really going on?”

  1. Stress test

From my time in the Czech Republic a generation ago I finally worked out what the excess of questioning, pessimism and doubtful language really signified. The Soviet context had been one of low expectations, cynicism and a constant diet of untruths disseminated via radio, television and newspaper. When the new country invaders from Germany, France UK and America arrived, their language of promises, short-term sacrifice and future riches must have sounded sickeningly familiar.

Over time it became clearer that the doubting questions, the need for proof and the hesitation were intended to stress test the foreigner’s promises. So the reframe for negative language heard in those times was a simple question, “Are you for REAL?”

  1. Science

Entropy describes the universe in its inexorable journey towards chaos and randomness. Pessimists are often closer to the mark with predictions of the future than their optimistic counterparts. The second reframe of negative language can be to see it as the pure and selfless pursuit of accurate forecasting!

  1. Change

I was working with a large group of people from Central and Eastern Europe recently and, as we began an American open form group exercise, I was hit by a wave of resistant language, critical questions and dire predictions. These individuals were subject matter experts and had been ripped out of their home environment and resettled in downtown London.

The context is important. Their reluctance to perform this random task was a reflection of their hesitation to embrace the change that they faced. They were cautious, fearful and their language betrayed their inhabiting something like a childlike state of not knowing.

  1. A good old moan

There is comfort and a bonding warmth to be found in having a moan, gossiping or whinging about shared circumstances. It is a large part of British small talk and I encounter it frequently when travelling to a new country and meeting a new training group. This seems to be a social attempt to unify diversity through articulating common themes and so building a temporary harmony that fosters the conditions in which a relationship can form. This of course comes with the caveat that it is frequently used for political ends in economically challenging times to unify disparate people to hate one minority, foreigners in general or the government of the day.

  1. Forced positivity

If I were to control your working hours communication with the directive that all of your words have to be optimistic, positive and upbeat, would you comply? For a lot of people this is a reality and their answer is yes. A couple of years ago I used to meet socially with a group of guys from a very famous American pharmaceutical company that pursued this linguistic policy.

What struck me as funny and a little tragic was that, under social circumstances in a Twickenham pub, the other side of their lexicon came out in a torrent. It’s as if, for every forced positive phrase, one negative phrase had to be uttered later to restore their inner peaceful balance.

  1. Permitted negativity.

There are 2 examples that stick in my mind. The first are some famous fictional detective figures that have full permission from society to be grumpy old men. Their surly belligerence is portrayed as a essential part of sleuthing genius and their tortuous ability to always get their man.

The second example is much more dangerous. In my UK trainings it is the overtly racist exchanges between English and French executives or the permitted taunts between groups of men and groups of women. The third horror is to be found in the inter-departmental jibes as, for instance, between sales and marketing.

Under the guise of banter, badinage and permitted cheek, these exchanges seem intended as proof of a trusting in-group bond but feel sadly like a rain of micro-inequities and acts of aggression.

Conclusion

Negative phrases provide a fabulous opportunity to ask, “What lies beneath the surface conversation?” Certainly from my time in the Czech Republic it was possible to separate the human from their words and the human’s intention from their deeper fears.