Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Radical Frustration

Chinese is a difficult language to learn, but usually I feel like its intricacies make it all the more intriguing. I have studied it for going on six semesters, and every time I hear the language, it sends a jolt of nostalgia to my heart. You see, I've been to the Middle Country four times, and I've made lots of Chinese friends. My goal is to become fluent in the ancient language, not only to bolster my chances of getting a job, but so I can speak with the 800 million Mandarin speakers in China on their terms.

But sometimes, I must admit, I feel like I've bit off more than I can chew. I'm double-majoring at the University of Georgia in journalism and religion, and last year I added Chinese as a minor. Maybe if I never wrote anything again or never cracked a religion textbook, I'd be at least conversational, but as it is at the beginning of this semester, I've arrived in advanced Chinese class having not spoken the language in about a month, surrounded by native speakers who are sure to heighten the difficulty level of the class. To make matters worse, the syllabus for the course is written in scholarly Chinese. I can't even read what's going to be required of me in this class.

Now, you may think, "What's the big deal if you don't know a few words on the syllabus? Just look 'em up." Ah, if it were only that easy. Some computer programs allow you to draw the character in a small box on a touch screen, which then gives you the definition of the word and its pronunciation. Sadly, I'm too poor to afford that technology. Let me walk you through the steps I have to take in order to look up just ONE character in Chinese.

Chinese characters have different parts, the most basic of which is called the radical. In the character pictured here, which is said to be the most complex in the Chinese writing system, the radical is the leftmost part, consisting of the dot and the squiggly line that swooshes underneath the rest of the strokes. The first step in looking up a character is finding this radical. After you've located it, you have to count the number of strokes. This one has two (or three, depending on whether or not you write it correctly. I forgot to tell you that before you even begin, you must have some base of knowledge in stroke order, length, and number).

After you've found the stroke number, the next step is to find that radical in the special dictionary section for looking up Chinese words. Next to the radical, under the two-stroke radicals column, there will be another number. This number sends you to a column a few pages over that lists all the characters containing this radical. This list is also broken into stroke number. So, when you get there, you must count the number of strokes in the remaining part of the character, find that section, and scroll down, searching for the character.

When you find it, it's not over. The dictionary gives you a romanized spelling to the right, which you can then use to look it up in the Chinese-English section. Once you're there, you finally reach the English meaning of the word. But sometimes, there is more than one meaning, and its obscured by the context or by a grammatical structure you don't understand. If so, the process begins again with the next character. You can imagination how annoying this becomes when you have something as involved as a syllabus to translate.

If I'm going to continue studying this language, I must somehow get over--or learn to live with--this radical frustration. That said, please start prayin'.

1 comment:

katy said...

i think you're radical. i love you!