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.
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..
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.