Hacking Chinese

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The Cthulhu bubble and studying Chinese

The Cthulhu bubble and studying Chinese

Image credit: Dominique Signoret

What does learning Chinese have in common with the cosmic monster Cthulhu?

Quite a lot, actually!

In this article, I will not only explain the concepts involved (I assume some readers aren’t familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft), but also discuss what they can teach us about learning Chinese.

The Cthulhu Mythos and the bubble

Cthulhu is a fictional entity created by the American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and the Cthulhu Mythos is simply a convenient way of referring to the fictional universe created by him and later adapted and expanded by others.

There’s lots to read about Cthulhu online, but the most important thing for the purpose of understanding this article is what my maths teacher in high school called “the bubble”. This isn’t a fixed expression used by Lovecraft, but it describes well what I’m after here.

In essence, the world as we know it exists in a fragile bubble. Inside the bubble, things are calm and rule-bound, but outside the bubble, chaos and terror reign supreme. Sometimes, beings from the universe outside the bubble penetrate into our reality. Lovecraft’s stories are mostly about such occurrences and what happens to the poor humans who get in the way.

(If you want to read more about Cthulhu in Chinese, check this entry on Baidu; if you don’t feel that brave, you can check the article on English Wikipedia.)

In much the same way, what we know about Chinese constitutes a bubble in which things are relatively well-ordered and where the Chinese we encounter coheres with our understanding of how the language works.

However, now and then we encounter things that don’t follow the rules we have learnt and turn our understanding of Chinese upside down. In Lovecraft’s fiction, the universe outside the bubble is chaotic rather than evil as such (although that might not matter to the victims). This isn’t actually true for Chinese since there are rules outside the bubble, it’s just that we haven’t learnt them yet. The experience is much the same, though.

Dealing with monsters from outside the bubble

I have created a small survival guide for adventurers. I can’t guarantee that it will stop you from going insane or help you survive, but it has served me well so far:

  • Make sure it’s a real monster and not a cultist dressed up as one – I don’t want to scare people more than necessary. Some of the things you encounter might look really scary, but if you look closer, they turn out to be okay. I’m not trying to make you stop looking closer at things that go against your current understanding of Chinese.
  • If it’s a real monster, don’t poke it – I’m serious about this. Some students want to go to the bottom of every single problem they encounter. This way  madness lies. Some of the things you will learn (or try to learn) will be very hard and even f you get to the bottom of them, the knowledge is probably useless at your current level.

So, what to do when you encounter a real monster? Let’s look at a typical monster from beyond the bubble and how to handle it.

Before I go into details, I’d like to point out that the size of the bubble is of course different for different students. More advanced learners might not have a problem with this example, but I provide it as an example anyway and it is something that certainly puzzles most learners..

  1. We learn quite early that 好 can be used to emphasise an adjective. For instance, 好难 as in 爱一个人好难. This usage is similar to 很.
  2. If we add the negation 不 as in 好不容易, we’re still cool. Something is not very easy, i.e. quite hard.
  3. However, 好容易 also means that something is hard, i.e. not easy! According to what we’ve said above, this doesn’t make sense at all.
  4. To make it even worse, expressions like 好不热闹 and 好不心疼 are actually affirmative, meaning that a place is very 热闹 or that something makes someone fell very 心疼.
  5. Sanity loss.

When you encounter words such as 好容易 and realise that it means the same as 好不容易, the best way is to not poke the monster in the eye. You don’t need to understand why these seemingly contradicting expressions actually mean the same thing, you just need to know what they mean.

It’s actually very simple: If you encounter a weird example, either ignore it or just memorise it. There’s nothing wrong with walking away and simply ignoring a special case. If you encounter it several times, perhaps it isn’t an exception and you need to adjust your mental models a bit, but ignoring something very strange or very hard the first time you see it is cool.

If you want to learn it for some reason, just memorise it. It isn’t worth the effort to spend an hour trying to understand something which won’t really make your Chinese better anyway, even if you might find the answer. The answers to these questions are easiest to find in Chinese, which means that native speakers also find them confusing (if you want one for the 好容易/好不容易, check this on Baidu).

Perfectionism is generally bad for you

You don’t need to completely understand every single character, word or structure when you read or listen to Chinese. If you only use textbooks , your bubble is very safe and neatly arranged for you, but as soon as you take the step to Chinese produced by natives for natives, you will find that weird things pop up all the time. If you pursue every exotic case you find, you will end up spending 90% of your time on 10% of the cases. This isn’t good. Don’t let perfectionism become an obstacle to progress.

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  1. Alan says:

    There are lots of similar examples in English: flammable=inflammable, etc. Best just to learn them by heart as you say and move on.

    I use Skritter, and for the first few months I had it set to add all characters within each new word. At some point I hit a wall as I was trying to learn many isolated characters that have no real meaning, or too many meanings, on their own. I deleted my word list and started again seeing words as individual units of meaning, with some words being single characters. Another thing that has helped my Skritter usage is to freely ban words from my list that aren’t useful enough to me to justify their complexity.

    1. John says:

      The flammable=inflammable example is the one that immediately popped into my mind too, analogous to 好不容易=好容易.

  2. Chris says:

    At the end of the day, it’s language, not math. Sure it doesn’t make sense a lot of the time. Don’t freak out. Sometimes I think the problem lies with the mindset of the sort of people who choose to learn Asian languages, use Anki and all that. Let’s face it, a lot of the time it’s geeks. I consider myself at least 50% geek, so don’t all get offended. I’m saying this because I too used to try to learn everything and would have a panic attack when something made no sense whatsoever. Anyways, these days my advice is always the same. If language study is getting you down, then think of another way to skin the cat. Play Warcraft in Chinese, put on a decent Chinese film (yes they do exist), if your in “Greater China” go grab a beer and talk to the bar staff in your shitty broken Chinese, go and haggle over the price of teaeggs in 7-11. Why are you even learning Chinese? To communicate and enrich your life no? So go and do some enriching, and quit staring at the Anki leech count/having existential crisis.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m not sure if this is related to the actual article in any way or if it’s just general commentary on how people in general learn Chinese. Personally, I always stress that you should find ways of studying that you enjoy, but I see no reason why you can’t do what you suggest and use Anki at the same time. I’m a little bit confused about who or what your comment is directed towards.

  3. Furio says:

    Yup, I would say this is another way to state Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule.

    Pareto said that, for many events, the 20% of the cause (or actions) are responsible for the 80% of the effects.

    So if you are a business man, roughly the 80% of your earnings will come from the 20% of your customers.

    Hence you are better off keeping your attention on them instead of getting crazy trying to make happy people that aren’t adding any value to your life.

    The sad reality is that we often spend the 80% of our time doing silly things that only account for the 20% of our results. Some examples?

    Compulsive email checking, Facebook updating, news checking, slightly modifying the CSS of our website (LoL). The list is endless.

    It applies quite will to languages study. If you can identify the 20% of a language that allows you to understand the 80% of what’s going on, you will avoid boredom and learn faster.

    In Chinese this may be: learn the most common characters in a context that matter to you, study the basic grammar structures and so on.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Indeed! I’m just trying to look at the same core concepts from different angles with the hope that different metaphors work for different people. I also think different approaches can highlight different problems. Perhaps I should write something directly about pareto later.

  4. Sara K. says:

    I forgot to mention it when you first posted this, but it seems that what you describe as an encounter with Cthulhu is like getting stuck in the tip of a cow’s horn (I’m referring to 鑽牛角尖).

  5. Fearchar says:

    Inflammable is not a negative: it means capable of bursting into flames. “Flammable” is the product of folk etymology.

    That said, the double negative that means the same as a single negative is well known in many English dialects, e. g. “I didn’t say nothing.”

    The more widespread the language, the greater the likelihood of logical inconsistencies, because languages are not fixed rules but sets of malleable conventions.

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