China’s Home Trotter: the Chinese Language and Glorious History

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The history of China, which some people say has been lasting for the past 4,000 years – but we Chinese usually think it has lasted for the past 5,000 years, depending on whether its beginning dates back to Shang or Xia Dynasty -, is long enough to be respected. A Chinese historian, Liang Qichao, advanced a statement last century that there were ‘four ancient civilizations’: Babylonia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient India and China. Whether this statement is acknowledged by others still remains a question, and the Chinese civilization would be the youngest of the four. However, the Chinese civilization would be the only one of the four that lasts until now. During thousands of years these civilizations have been invaded and conquered many times, making their once-advanced civilizations ruined. But China, to our glory, has never been completely conquered. The Mongol Empire, which almost invaded the whole Eurasian continent, also built its government on our homeland. However, their government chose to learn from or even copy our own culture. They chose to change themselves, but not to ruin us. While transfer of government happened all the way through – even a century ago we still didn’t have a sense of modern nation -, the development of the Chinese civilization was never interrupted. Of course, it has a lot of problems and will meet more difficulties in the future, but it is still alive until nowadays. To me, that is enough to be proud of!

Specific conditions can have quite a strong influence on the history and culture of a country or a region. According to A Global History (written by Stavrianos), it is, to a great extent, the specific geographical environment that made the Shang civilization, originating from 17 century BC, so different from any other civilizations in Eurasia. If anyone has interest in looking at a map, he may find out that China is located on the east side of Eurasia, surrounded by mountains, deserts and an ocean, which were all impossible to get through at ancient time. Compared with those located in the center of Eurasia, such as Mesopotamia, China apparently suffered mush less invaders because of those. But in the meantime, the constant war with nomadic people made Chinese people develop their fighting skills. Deserts in northwest China prevented foreign armies to invade us, but didn’t block normal trade between east and west. Compass, gunpowder and printing were introduced to west through a trade path going across the desert, called the silk road. Chinese civilization had kept an appropriate exchange with Ancient Roma, Arab, Persia during a long time. That means that Ancient China, at least sometimes, was not as unenlightened as one could think. Meanwhile, the topography and climate there are extremely suitable for agriculture development (most of the place is under a monsoon climate). Crops growing on this land were merely enough for its people at that time. Like specific conditions make Earth suitable for us to live, those made of the Chinese culture what it is today, guaranteeing its continuity and development over thousands of years.

Before we formally start with the history of China, I’d like to talk about Chinese, the language we use first. As we can figure, when talking about history, writing either names, people or places will be unavoidable. Chinese is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world. (Anyone who doesn’t believe it is welcomed to give it a try!) To those whose Mother tongue is English or French, or any other language where words are built as a combination of sounds, Chinese and Chinese characters seem amazingly different from what they have already known before. Chinese, marked as photography, comes instantly from symbols our ancestors carved. Actually, when a civilization first appeared, people tended to drew or carved some symbols to express themselves. These symbols were like drawings and hard to remember, so most of them gradually abandoned them and invented a totally different way to record things, known as alphabet. However, that was not the case for Chinese. Our Chinese ancestors didn’t give up on the drawing symbols. They chose to constantly simplify them until they became today’s Chinese characters. The very last simplification happened in 1950s-1970s. No matter how much they are simplified now, we can still find an obvious link between them and ancient drawings, which reflects even more apparently on some simple characters.

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As a kind of photography, Chinese doesn’t have any alphabet. Round 10 000 characters that make up for this lack of a Chinese alphabet. We don’t use a single ‘b’ because it is meaningless. Only in a word, ‘bee’ or ‘before’, does the letter ‘b’ have its meaning. But Chinese characters can be used alone, although we do also have words consisting of two or more characters. For instance, the word “马上”means ‘immediately’ or ‘at once’, but the single character “马”and“上”do have their own meaning. “马”means horse and “上”means up. It can be really free to express your thoughts. Knowing these, you can even create a new word yourself!

The problem is, it sometimes might be hard to translate Chinese into other languages such as English, and especially names. The British first name Mary is just Mary, you cannot spell something like, err… Maryiana. ‘Mary’ now is simply a name and the word itself doesn’t have real meanings. However, Chinese names (Japanese,Korean as well), consisting of one to three characters, most of the time two, can have their meanings, often the best wishes from parents. My name is Yihan. When it is written as Yihan, it is nothing but five letters. But Yihan, written as 艺涵 in Chinese, has a meaning. “艺”might mean ‘art’ or ‘talent’. “涵”can be explained as self-restraint. Names of places go the same. The capital of China, Beijing, also spelt as Peking, is written “北京”in Chinese. “北”is north and “京”is capital. Beijing means the ‘north capital’, because when it was first built it was in the north of the previous capital Yingtian, now known as Nanjing (南京,南means south, so it can be translated as the south capital. ) How could we know these through the seven letters that form the word Beijing? As you can see, if you are good enough at Chinese, you will find it interesting.

     Another difference is the tone. Chinese has a system of tones, which is a particular pitch pattern on a syllable that can be used to distinguish different meanings. We have four different tones in total. For example, characters 依yi 仪yi以yi义yi all spelt ‘yi’ in English, but they are read completely different in Chinese, known as first, second, third and forth tones. I notice that some foreigners find it hard to pronounce the second and third tones correctly… You may want to have a try!

Chinese doesn’t have any concept such as tenses or grammar. Especially in ancient times, people liked to use a lot of ellipsis and inversion, which needed readers to guess.

Language is a vehicle of culture. Translation can solve most of the problems, but not all. If you truly like Chinese culture, learning the language should always be a good choice for you!

 

Credits:: ciid.dk, blog.hutong-school.com

World’s Next Door: This Is How Shrek and Harry Potter Taught Me English

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If I had to mention something I am certainly not talented at – aside from singing -, it would be languages. My country’s disastrous language education did not help. As my 11th grade German teacher explained quite concisely: « A French student is not taught German so that they learn to speak it ».

What is France’s problem with languages then? Is our broken English a product of our aversion to globalization? Is our German poor, because of an enduring ‘Germanophobia’ after two World Wars? Facts do not support either of these hypotheses. A Chinese friend recently told me, to my surprise, that she thought it was easier for her to learn English than it had been for me; because it was a completely new alphabet for her, there was no possibility of confusing English with her mother tongue. It is true that as French is a language that is both very close to and very far from English, it can indeed get confusing. English conjugations are a blessing compared to French ones (that certainly considerably enrich our language but could also be considered a crime against humanity). That being said, English words are stressed whereas French words aren’t. While it is true that English and French have many words in common, there are several “faux amis” such as ‘deception’ which in English means ‘dupery’ whereas the French ‘déception’ is to be understood as ‘disappointment’… that’s enough for anyone to get mad. And added to this, the natural French tendency to not dare to try, here is, Madam, Sir, the perfect cocktail for one not to improve.

Anyway. To me, the main reason for our love-hate relationship with languages, and particularly English, lies elsewhere. I hold school responsible for this. The French schooling system is known for its very academic, traditional, ‘you’re-gonna-learn-this-by-heart-and-not-think-about-it’ approach. Though it may be quite efficient for mathematics; it is an uphill battle when it comes to learning English. This explains why we end up with French Presidents who say « Sorry for the time » when apologizing for the weather, or « You can be, do what you want to do » in a supposedly inspirational speech.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to study in a bilingual primary school, with a native English teacher who had a very personal way of teaching. Stephen initiated us very early to the sarcastic British sense of humor, a mix of pitiless French bashing and jokes that he would utter in complete deadpan, his eyes sparkling with joy and mirth. He taught us vocabulary by use of hand-made drawings, making us play rugby, and by giving us dozens of British songs to learn. Secondary school happily destroyed my level in English by its merciless French teaching method, but I thankfully retained the ability to sing ‘Message in a bottle’ (The Police), ‘White winter hymnal’ (Fleet foxes) and ‘What a wonderful world’ (Louis Armstrong) (those give you a very good insight in Stephen’s taste in music).

 

A few years later, after high school studies in a so-called ‘international section’, a two month-long exchange in Australia, and a year of university with all my classes in English: a friend from Honduras and I stopped to randomly talk to a woman who has asked us a question in the street. After a fifteen minute conversation, she asked us where we were from, and looked startled when I answered I was from Lyon, France – ‘You’re French? But you speak French with an accent!’

My first reaction was to laugh, astonished. And then I remembered that French people would now often start to speak English to me, ask me with genuine curiosity how long I have lived in Great Britain, or even have this flattering but surprising question ‘But are you sure you are from France? You have a British accent!’

For someone who was used to having a Frenchy-arguably-Australian-ish accent, this was a revolution. But after thinking about it, I started to realize that indeed – completely unconsciously, I was now speaking French with a bit of an accent on some words. So now that my level in French is even decreasing, that my level in English is certainly not perfect, and that after eight years of studying German, I am still not able to ask where the toilets are, I am the last person who should give advice on ‘how to learn a language and improve’. But considering that the situation would have been worse without those, I’m still gonna do it.

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First, learn some songs. Pick up one that you particularly like, print the lyrics, translate them yourself, and learn it, while you’re queuing at the supermarket, sitting in the bus or walking to school. After I left primary school, my Father would walk me every morning to secondary school; and every morning, we would rehearse English and German songs that I loved and that I would translate with him. Years after, even though my German is still as poor as a college student, I can sing Nena’s 99 Luftballons by heart. What is great with songs is that they endure. I would strongly advise you not to try Adele’s – no one sets fire to the rain or rolls in the deep in one’s everyday life -, but Abba’s are quite easy and catchy.

fundo de tela sherek.jpgSecond, watch movies. And put subtitles in the language that you’re trying to learn; if not, it won’t help. I would particularly recommend animated cartoons; their stories are easy to understand, so you can more focus on the language – plus, if you’re 30 years old without kids and your friends catch you watching Cinderella in secret, you can argue that it’s because you want to improve your English/German/Spanish/Khmer and show them my article as an excuse (do not say thanks, my pleasure). After years of watching cartoons and animated movies to improve my English, I can say that the best choice, without any doubt, is ‘Shrek’. First because it’s brilliant; the characters speak a very clear English, with different levels (Donkey’s accent is quite hard to get, Shrek is very understandable but quite familiar, the Queen speaks more formally); and it’s a clever criticism of authoritarianism, discriminations and sexism. It’s brilliant.

ZR3l1ez.jpgEventually, read books, and books that have been written in the language that you’d like to learn. The best choice you can make is to read books that you’ve already read many times. This way, you’ll already know the story and will be free to focus on the words, sentences and idioms. A few years ago, I decided to reread ‘Harry Potter’ by Joanne Rowling, in English this time, and wow – I couldn’t have taken a better decision. It helped me a lot, because the puns and writing make the book a thousand times better in English than it is in any other language, because it is catchy, entertaining and captivating, and because Rowling’s style is both very good and very pedagogical.

 

Here are three simple, fun, not time-consuming, and almost magic means of improving in any language you’d like to learn. They are way less expensive than travelling or going on exchange, and way easier than finding a native speaker to talk to – even though I strongly advise you to do that -, and they’ll make you want to improve. Because even if you’re the laziest person on Earth, you’ll want to finish this funny movie, to finish this fascinating book, to learn this moving song! Wanting to improve is probably the best thing that can happen to you.

 

That being said, it is now to be done. My plans for the Summer include using the Harry Potter Method to improve my Spanish and German and re-watching the whole Shrek series because let’s be honest, my English still sucks – and I also really want to watch Shrek.

Feel free to add, on Facebook or in the comments, your most useful tips and life hacks to learn a language, and good luck with that!

 

Credits: super kuka, Nightflights, and Harry Potter wallpapers on wallpapercave.

Costa Rica: A small town’s contribution to culture

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5:30 pm. There is a slight breeze brushing on my hair, and my fingers itch with the touch of the blades of grass. I open my eyes and see mountains descending for kilometers and kilometers until they reach a golden coast, covered in the rays of the sleepy sun. I’m sitting in one of my favorite places in the world: Las Piedras (The Stones). This corner of my world, where hundred-year old volcanic rocks are used simultaneously as a teenager’s bench and a beetle’s shelter, was all I knew; my secluded home that seemed, like a bug’s refuge, a bit too small.

When I turned 17, I had just finished high school and I took the decision of moving my life to France for a few years. Some people have called my decision brave, others impulsive, I call it inevitable. Few small-town people that I’ve met have told me that they’d enjoy spending the rest of their lives in their hometown and I’m no exception. Almost two years after my departure, I came back to Monteverde for a second time and, naturally, I saw the town with different eyes. The food tasted better, the sunsets were slower, people’s smiles were sweeter. I was reminded of how particular this tiny place is and how distinct its culture is from much of the country. I admit many people will say that about their respective homes, but bear with me, that is precisely my point.

To get to Monteverde from San José, Costa Rica’s capital, you have to take a 4-hour bus, of which one hour is up a dirt road next to immense cliffs. Regardless of the intimidating journey, the town’s humble population of 6,750 is visited by about 250 thousand tourists yearly, meaning a monthly average of over 20,800. It’s not hard to imagine why this is after spending just two minutes googling pictures of the place, but Monteverde’s cosmopolitan side does not end here. To understand why, we have to take trip to the United States in the 1950’s.

 The Korean war had just sparked at the time, and the US government was drafting soldiers from all around the country. A group of Quakers and pacifists from Fairhope, Alabama who refused to take part in the conflict, decided to move to a more peaceful place. Costa Rica, which had abolished its army in 1949, seemed like an ideal new home. The group of Americans bought land in what is now Monteverde, where only a few Costa Rican families were living at the time. In order to sustain themselves, they created the nationally famous Cheese. The Quakers soon founded the Monteverde Friend’s School which is now one of two bilingual schools in town. As time passed Quaker and Costa Rican culture began to mix. As an established melting pot for Americans and Ticos (Costa Ricans’ informal demonym) more families joined the town. Subsequently, tourism boomed during the 1980’s in Costa Rica, Monteverde’s biodiversity and international nature only stimulating the growth and the global presence of the town.

Driving around, you can see a public soccer field, often crowded with loud, energetic youth; street-open, repair workshops where muscular, greasy, middle aged man are laughing as they fix motorcycles; the Catholic Church in the middle of town, in which elderly ladies close their eyes and hold a rosary. Scenes such as these are the representation of Costa Rican culture at its core, maybe even a good peak into Latin America itself. Look a little closer, however, and you will see less conventional scenes. Wake up early in the morning and it would not be uncommon to see a group of teenagers with binoculars heading into the woods to birdwatch; on a Saturday night you might hear folk music from the Friend’s School, where both young adults and seniors are square-dancing.

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A culture can be analyzed and differentiated through many factors. One recognizes cities as Paris or Rome for their art and architecture or makes the difference between Argentina and Chile based on language and accent, or even distinguishes between Chinese families and American families based on their traditions like when they celebrate the New Year. Monteverde, by this standard has, undoubtedly, its own culture. Concerning art, on top of square dancing, it has become a summer tradition for many to go watch the yearly musical organized by Far Corners Musical Theater. This is a non-profit that has produced plays for over 10 years in the community with kids from the ages of 12-18. Furthermore, language is an amusing topic in the town. Younger generations have excellent levels of English, and many young adults, including myself, have the habit of speaking Spanglish, swiftly changing languages half-sentence or using certain words that might be more precise in a second language. Beyond that, the formal way of saying “you” (Usted) is used much more than it is in the capital, which changes the whole conjugation of your sentences and, in turn, the way you sound.

Some instances of Costa Rican culture are also harder to find in Monteverde. For starters, there is a very specific structure of how towns were built hundreds of years ago in the country. The Church was most likely facing the East, with a park in front of it and the school next it. This arrangement is not found in the town which was built fairly recently in very irregular geography. The church is far from any school and, although nature is abundant, there is no real park in town. The massive amount of agriculture that can be found in many other parts of the country is also missing; rather, the town harnessed its potential for agriculture into tourism, which is the absolute core of the economy in the zone. Tours of coffee and sugarcane plantations, as well as many reforestation activities are easy to find around.

When visiting a country, it is easy to simply use stereotypes to understand the place. It makes us feel safer to know something about a place and we often get carried away by it. Many go to France expecting to see mimes and tons of smokers. What’s more, many of these images that we hear about come from cities, as they are often the most visited place in a country. Stereotypes and assumptions are necessary for people to feel safer while traveling; often it can be the only information one has of a place. But regardless of their importance, their dangers have to be considered as well.

This town is not exclusively a part of Costa Rican culture, as it is not the case for hundreds of thousands of towns world-wide that you and I have yet to discover. The outcome of what the town and its inhabitants are right now, as it is the case for a country, comes from specific occurrences to the place. Granted, it is heavily affected by both our Costa Rican and Latin heritage, but just like the country’s culture is not a hand-down from either Central or Iberian America, what Monteverde has become is an independent phenomenon that overlaps with what the larger culture around it is.

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After spending some time in Europe, I realized I was scared to say that I knew what Costa Rican culture accurately was, knowing that my town was not an absolute representation of my country. How could it ever be, though? I now understand that this is not an unreasonable feeling. Like cities, towns can deeply contribute to a country’s culture while remaining distinctive. Fortunately, this notion only widens the possibilities of learning, exploring and experiencing the vastness of the globe. And I urge you to, as you may have been told all your life, rid your mind of any prejudice and observe, truly observe, what each and every corner of the world has to offer.

 

To see many more beautiful photos of Costa Rica, you may want to go check out local photographer Félix Salazar’s website (https://www.felucointhewoods.com) and Instagram: felucointhewoods!