How are you doing in China? – The curiosity of languages

Whenever we start learning a new language, we are confronted with different challenges.

Those challenges depend very much on the language we are about to learn and on the

langueges we already know.

When you learn English you may have a problem with all these different tenses you have to

memorize and when a verb is irregular or regular. However, you might not have these

challenges if you already knew German.

When you learn German you may have a problem with all the different articles. Sometimes a

noun is masculine, sometimes it is feminine and sometimes it is neutral. Logically a chair is

neutral, is it not? However, gramatically in German it is masculine. And how is a chair more

mosculine than a girl is neutral; because the noun for “girl” in German is neutral. You might

not have this problem, if you already knew French.

When you learn French you may have the similar problem to German when deciding if a

noun is mascular or feminine. Here the chance is already only 50/50 and you have to choose

just between two articles. However, you might have problems memorizing all the different

endings of verbs depending on the tense and depending on who is doing something. You

might not have this problem if you already knew Italian.

And so on….

The point is, you could have taken any language and there would be some difficulties for you.

If you live in Europe and you try to learn other European languages, you have the advantage

of all these languages having been influenced by one another over the past centuries.

Now imagine, though, that you travel half around the world and visit a country, you have

never been before. A country, of whose language you have no idea.

Let us look at China for example. The Chinese language is called Mandarin and it is spoken

by more than one Billion people, that is twice as much as the population of Europe and more

than three times as much as the population of the US. Moreover, China is not only one of the

biggest economies of the world, it is, by far, the fastest growing economy in the world.

There are several other reasons, why one might decide to learn Mandarin. China is a beautiful

country, which can offer good food and a great culture much older than many other countries


When you, coming from Europe or Africa, America or the Middle East, or many other places

for the matter, you will encounter many challenges and curiosities.

First, there are different characters and let us contiously not talk about an alphabet here. If

you have seen Chinese characters they do not look like the letters of the Latin alphabet, or the

Arab alphabet. They look more like small images and drawings to those who do not

understand their meaning. There are many different characters and it depends on how you

combine them and in which context you use them, before you can understand their full


Second, the pronounciation. Imagine you have never made a sound in your life. Your mouth

will just not know how to do it. People will do it in front of you and ask you just to follow the movement of their lips. You think you do, but apperently it is still not correct. They will

repeat it and you are convinced that it sounds exactly as what you have been saying. The truth

is that it does not. It sounds different. But to your ears it will sound the same because your

ears are not used to this sound.

And third there are different customs behind the language. Different sayings and phrases and

also things that you do not say. In China for example, there is no sentence that equals the

meaning “How are you?”. Today you can find something in the translations and if you ask

Chinese friends, they will give you a translation: “Ni hao ma?”. But the truth is that “Ni hao”

simply means “Hello” and after one foreigner after the other asking for the meaning of “How

are you?” they just added the word “ma” and said that this would mean “How are you?”

However, when you travel in China and ask people “How are you?” it makes them feel

uncomfortable. In the Chinese culture you do not reveal your feelings to a stranger. And if

you feel bad, you would not say anything. Lying, however, would be very impolite. So, what

do you do? You do not ask “How are you?”.

But now imagine that you come from China and you travel to Europe for example. Won’t

their letters look extremely strange to you. They are circles and lines and sometimes you have

a space between them and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you draw dots on them and

sometimes you don’t. Whereever you go, you can combine the same letters in a different way

and they have an entirely different meaning.

And then imagine you have never pronounced the letter “r” and you have to say words in

Italian, such as “Arrividerci” or in English, such as “ridicolous” or in German, such as “

Ratgeber”. It is impossible.

And then there are things, which are common to European culture, but are just not in the

Chinese culture. The same way as they do not ask “How are you?” in China because it is

impolite, it is impolite not to ask “How are you?” when you talk to someone in Europe, is it


We can see all these differences and they do seem logical to us, when we read about them as

above, but when we go outside and talk to a Chinese person who never asks us how we are

doing, what we did or how we felt in that situation, we judge without wondering, why they

did not ask the question. On the other side we bluntly ask personal, in the Chinese thought,

questions to someone we don’t really know that well.

Just by looking at the language of a country we can already begin to understand how its

culture works, how its people think and how they behave. This is true for any country

because from any country there is another side of the world, a place far away of which you

may have never heard. And what we should take away from these differences, is that we are

all equal because we are all different, because we all respect and cherish the diversity this

planet has to offer.

1 Comment

  1. theitinerary1

    Great post

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