The Chinese language is comprised of the written form and the spoken form. The written form is the most outstanding feature that sets the language apart from all other civilizations’ languages, for it uses characters made up of formations of around 15 different strokes of the brush or pen, instead of alphabets. People may struggle to learn somewhere around 50+ alphabets in the Indian scripts compared to 26 alphabets in English, the Chinese language has up to 40000 written forms, of which at least 2000 of them has to be memorized in order to use the language with basic proficiency.
Most of us Chinese people who have an average mastery of the language know around 5000 characters. Some who read or write frequently or have exposure to literature may know up to 10000 characters. There are still many obscure words that are not frequently used as they may be technical jargon or some very precise terms.
Recent studies showed that a learner needs at least 2200 hours of learning and practice in a classroom before he or she can gain standard language proficiency. Spanish on the other hand only takes 600 hours of learning. In Singapore, Chinese citizens spend 10 years learning this language. Those who are somewhat good at Chinese language (like me) have to keep using the language after mandatory education, be it reading newspapers, books or the internet, or speaking with our family, friends and watching videos.
Learning part of the language, usually through the learning of other Chinese skills or arts, can gradually stir up the interest and curiosity to further explore this ancient language. This journey to explore deeper into this language seems like an endless descent into a bottomless pit, however the curiosity to discover the underlying mysteries are similarly endless and bottomless.
Schoolkids in Singapore are very used to the ease of using ABCs until graduation. The problem is how the current generation of Singaporeans youth is going to learn complicated skills. How do they learn Kung Fu that is similar to learning how to write 5000 Chinese characters correctly, neatly, and quickly?
How then to encourage the diligence, hard work and the pursuit of sophistication in Kung Fu in our youths? The process of learning Kung Fu is no doubt fun and dynamic, but the child has to develop seriousness towards Kung Fu to make sure that it becomes a practical life skill. This diligence and sophistication can be a real asset to other aspects of a child’s development.
Foreigners Learn Chinese Language to learn the Martial Art
I know a couple of non-Chinese sifus who picked up the Chinese language as they are interested in learning from an ethnically Chinese teacher. To them, it is interesting and also polite to learn the language to facilitate smooth communication between the teacher and the student. This is a virtue to learn from; when you do something, be prepared to go the extra mile.
Some learners who treat Kung Fu as a casual recreational activity may not find it important to learn the language. However the majority of casual learners are poor learners of movements and visuals, hence they will need to write down notes if they are to start remembering things.
Besides the extensive vocabulary, to learn the Chinese language, it can be hard to grasp the switching from alphabetical formations to memorization of thousands of characters. Other languages use free tones while the Chinese language uses designated tones to mark different words.
Every time you learn one word, the sense of accomplishment can be great. But after a dozen words the process starts to get grueling as you juggle the penmanship practice, the order of the strokes, the direction and placement.
This is the essence of Kung Fu. Mastery and hard work over time. No shortcuts and no discounts. This is the very nature of the Far East Asian culture.
If throughout your learning process you have come to terms that hard work and concentrated refinement is the mindset you need to instill in yourself to learn Kung Fu and the language behind the Kung Fu, then you will eventually reach your goal having won half the battle.
Learning Chinese is like Learning Art
The way the Chinese language is constructed means that the person has to learn how to ‘sing’ with the tones and ‘draw pictures’ with the characters. A big fraction of the human population have very low affinity in the arts to begin with; drawing a picture or singing a tune is the last thing they can do, not to mention thousands of them.
If art is your thing, Chinese language is akin to learning painting and music. It can be a challenge but you know it is a rewarding one. With the fine control of strokes placement and proportion of characters you write, you’ve already worked with the basics of painting. While the spoken tongue of Mandarin has 4 tones, Cantonese has 6 tones, enough to sing a song with.
What about the martial arts? The arts that has an undeniable relationship with victory or defeat, injury and safety, life and death? Similarly if you do not practice writing and reciting words, you will not get the vocabulary and grammar of the language, if you do not practice your technique neatly with strength and speed in the right parts of your body, you will be slow, weak and ineffective. If you have practiced writing with many repetitions, you will be able to write fast, and that is the same for Kung Fu combat skills when you become able to strike faster and harder than the untrained.
As with any language, practicing oral conversation with another person is the main step in mastery of the Chinese language. Interacting with another learner or Chinese speaker helps to improve one’s comprehension skill and ability to make oneself effectively understood. Kung Fu is not much different, for interactive training with a technical partner or sparring partner is necessary to hone the effectiveness of techniques and ability to cope with an opponent’s movements.
As with good communication that promotes social connection with people around us, interaction with other people be it classmates or rivals is essential for the Kung Fu practitioner’s development. Seasoned martial artists like me can tell you we’ve seen far too many antisocial practitioners who staunchly stick to their solo exercises and technical drills. These people then find that they cannot connect their moves to an opponent’s maneuvers in sparring, no matter how fast they move on their own or how strong and hard their solo demonstrations are. They always end up throwing their power in the wrong place and get punched in the face, kicked in the gut without realizing how it ended up that way.
These people lack understanding of other human beings, just like people who only speak their own intentions without regard for what others tell them. In Kung Fu, perception in the eyes is as essential in function as is velocity in the hands. We attain this perception through experience of interaction, and observation of others’ expressions.
Benefits of the Chinese Language
If you can read both the Chinese and English language, you will realize that Chinese sentences are shorter than sentences formed by words made up of alphabets. English has many grammar markers too. This is because alphabets expand sideways every time you add more. For Chinese, a complicated 25 stroke character will take up as much space as a simple 4 stroke character. Chinese books are rather paper saving in this sense. Saves you the effort of flipping many pages and carrying heavy books.
There are some alphabet based languages like German and Indian that has very long words with many syllables to pronounce, especially when it comes to technical jargon or specific meanings. The Chinese language tackles this problem by having specialized characters to represent these words.
Speaking in Chinese can also be more expressive because of its tones in pronunciation. Its grammar is also dynamic, especially when you discover different accents and slang, or start to explore literature and historical texts.
It is good to get used to complexity and sophistication. Accurate stroke placement in writing Chinese characters and observation of tones in speech will translate to quick processing of movements when learning Kung Fu. Kung Fu movements differ from other martial arts in that movements are often a combination of two or more partial movements, such as moving and hitting, punching and kicking, moving and blocking, blocking and hitting, or all three at the same time. The way of doing multiple movements at one time contributes to the effect of flow, where several movements string together in continuity.
If we refer to the Japanese language, they have a set of alphabets made of stripped down parts that makes Chinese characters. Tone observation is not compulsory in Japanese, but they have to use more syllables to deliver the same meaning as one Chinese character. Chinese language only uses one mode of writing, while Japanese language has 3 modes of writing, which are Chinese characters, Japanese alphabets and another set of alphabets for foreign terms.
If we look at how their Karate martial art is recently assembled and performed compared to Chinese martial arts, we realize they tend to do one thing at a time; a move is a move, separate from punching, blocking and kicking, just like alphabets compared to Chinese characters.
For Singaporeans, I encourage the youth to stay in practice with the language, because it is a good communication tool that connects not just the local Chinese together but also mainland Chinese and other Chinese Diaspora. English speaking families and Mandarin speaking families hardly interact closely with each other, it’s as though they are long term strangers living on the same island. They can probably connect if both sides are bilingual.
After reading my article on the Chinese Language, if you are a Chinese parenting a child who spends time in a dominantly English speaking environment in school, you might want to send them to our class for we will give them a healthy dose of mother tongue exposure.
In my next issue, I will be covering about the usage of Mandarin and dialects in Kung Fu class. Do you know there are 3 spoken Chinese tongues that my sifu uses to teach Hung Gar? They are Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien. Internationally, Hung Gar is represented in Cantonese. In Mandarin, it is called Hong Quan, in Hokkien it is called Anggun. Kung Fu is called Gong Fu in Mandarin, in Hokkien it is translated as Kang Hoo but the Southeast Asian Diaspora prefers the term Kun Tao.