Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Mandarin Characters and Thought Restrictions

I was riding home from a church meeting with three other guys. Two of them were from a distant branch, and the driver was from my branch presidency, so we were sort of two groups of two, and we were becoming familiar with each other. The other guys asked about our Mandarin abilities. I have virtually none, while the driver speaks fluently. They asked about his reading ability, because reading is so difficult that it's often something that learners ignore. The one guy said, "Like, can you read the newspaper?" The driver said, "It depends on the topic. A general news story or a story in my field, yes. A specialized story about something in science, for instance, no."

I thought some about this over the next few weeks. I realized the nature of Chinese characters prohibits (or at least greatly restricts) independent learning in new fields. See, if I wanted to read an English article about, say, molecular biology, I could get the article and read it. When I got to a word I didn't know, like "epistasis" (courtesy of the Wikipedia entry for "molecular biology"), I could at least closely approximate its proper pronunciation. I might learn its meaning from context, or from further study, or from asking someone, "What does 'epistasis' mean?" But when someone wants to read a Chinese article about molecular biology, when they get to the word "epistasis," it's this impenetrable black box. They can memorize the picture and recognize it later, so that might help them learn the meaning from context, but they can never talk about the word, which included talking about it in their own heads (without giving it a different name), which is what thinking is.

I know there are dictionaries that let you look up characters you don't know based on their composite strokes, but that's a really unwieldy way of going about something. The end result is that, except for the very dedicated learner, Chinese characters prohibit people from learning about and speaking about (and greatly hinder their thinking about) new ideas.

Mormons are prohibited from talking about the church with Chinese nationals while here in China, but we can discuss it with foreign passport holders. Some of those passport holders are most comfortable speaking in Mandarin. Some church members who know Mandarin know it from serving as missionaries in Taiwan, but some (like my driver that day) didn't learn Mandarin in a church context. As such, they can't speak about church. We have a young man in our branch who has been learning about the church, and the plan was to teach one of his lessons with his parents there for them to have a better idea of what their son was getting into. However, the teacher had to be someone who learned Mandarin as a missionary, and even the young man's native-speaker parents had to learn new terminology that they would have been unable to read on their own.

It reminds me of the story about "Constantine and Constitution." If you don't even have a word for something, it's a lot harder for you to think about it.

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