Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review of various languages – an Asian view

-as featured in the Jan '00 issue of British Mensa language newsletter. The club of people with high IQ of 148+.

I have learnt over 12 languages from languages institutes around the world for the past 10 years (Click to see my blog about this). Here I would share some of my reviews on the various languages that I have learnt.


The following are my rating for the languages that I know based on my personal limited knowledge of the languages with regard to their respective user-friendliness, don't be offended if I said something stupid about your mother tongue or if you hold a different view. it's done just for fun!!!(in the same spirit of Mr. Cranky’s  review for movies.)

how long and where did I learnt it LANGUAGE Rating out of 5 stars Review highlight
HK 1 month Esperanto ***** I think Esperanto should be renamed as “Europaranto”
HKU 8 months Spanish **** ½ Unlike Russian or German where conjugation is a pain in the ass, Spanish conjugation can actually save you lot of hassle in vocab-building
Hong Kong English  ***½ What is good about English is that one article“the”can replace all those stupid “le la el, las los, det der…etc.”
Dijon, HK 3 years French *** It’s beautiful only when spoken by native french girls, but when spoken by guys, it sounds like a chain of mumur from which only a bunch of voir voir voir and ous ous ous is heard. A very strange language, which express 98 as 4x20+10+8.
Berlin 3 mo. German  **½ I don’t know why there are so many consecutive consonants in a word, and so many long words in a sentence, so many long sentence that won’t end until you stuff enough phrase before they put the final verb.
all my life Chinese *****½ cons: Let’s demystify Chinese, only a small portion of Chinese words worth the pain of all the strokes in drawing it.
pros:“a picture is worth a thousand word”yes, but you have first to make sure that this word is not a chinese word, or else it’ll be just as good as expressive a picture!
Moscow U. 40 days Russian  Russian letters are all spy codes designed to confuse the reader from the West. You think it’s an alphabet you already know, but it’s actually a code for something totally different.
Tokyo 9 mos Japanese *** Most of the words are unnecessarily long, however, good writing system for incorporating best of two worlds.
Seoul 3 months Korean ***½ why would a language distinguish the “big brother of a male speaker”형님 from “big brother of a female speaker”오빠, and yet at the same time use the same word for both younger brother and younger sister?  Does it mean that if you are younger in a Confucius country, you don’t matter at all?
Cairo 2 months Arabic * I felt as if I've been cheated, after Chinese, I must say Arabic and Thai got the most difficult writing system. Can someone please make defective Arabic effective again? 5 years later,  My nephew Jovan grew up, but that language that has thousands of years didn’t.  My complaints came up again when I attempted
Ulan Batoor 1 month Mongolian ** You can not think of a language more useless than Mongolian, can you?
jakarta 1 month Indonesian **** No doubt the easiest language on earth, Why doesn’t UN include this
HCM 1 month Vietnamese *** French make the Vietnamese words so unnecessarily long. Vietnamese can tolerate it because at least it writes quicker than the Chinese script they used to use.
Bangkok 3 months Thai ** Thai got the most difficult and confusing writing system after Chinese.

Esperanto (rating *****) Well, if I give Spanish 4 ½, there is no reason i shouldn't give this artificial language a 5, however, I still think it's too European, the inventor should learn something from Chinese, what's the point of retaining concepts like plural, masculine/feminine? Chinese got none! He should also use some other representation for characters like ^c, ^s, ^g...etc. What's on his mind when he wanna make a user friendly language with so many user-unfriendly symbols that never existed before? Anyway, I've joined an Esperanto club and it's a great way to make friends. It's a good social club for linguistic fans, that's the best it can be at this moment. Oh yeah, it's such a great language that unite all nations together that there are different races in my Esperanto class... and when we encountered some difficulty in communication? oh, of course, we use English instead… what else can we do? hehe.

I think Esperanto should be better renamed as "Europeranto", for it's only a mixture of various European languages, with no ingredients from other languages. Note, I said a "mixture" not a "sublimation". Why? coz the inventor seems to just pick the root for the Esperanto words randomly (by throwing dart perhaps?).

Bad choice of the most common words: Yes!

Here is a good illustration. He picked "JES" for "Yes" in Esperanto, this is definitely the worst choice. If he gave any thought in choosing this most commonly used word, he should have chosen "Si" which is the yes for Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, French also use "Si" for Yes in answering negative questions. "Si" is also the Yes in Chinese, (in Mandarin it’s Shi, and it pronounces almost the same as SI in Chiuchow dialect.)... Therefore, if he uses "Si" as the Esperanto "Yes", what happens is that one quarter of the Earth's population -Chinese, plus majority of Europeans and South Americans will understand that instantly.

but, "JES" is only used in English. It's better to use "Ya" for it's the "Yes" in German, plus it also sounds like the colloquial "yeah" in English. So, from this, you see it's not as good as it set out to be.  I know J is used to express Y sound in phonetic symbols, but people usually pronounce J as Dz or H(in spanish), I think we should keep Y as Y instead of using J which will cause lot of confusion for majority of population on earth.

Therefore, I think perhaps Womex Reforming English is a more practical idea than Esperanto, since what's stupid about Esperanto is that it purposely tries to stay away from any particular European language so as to look neutral, ignoring the fact that it's thousands times more effective to develop and improve on one existing language where lot of people already speak, than to develop a new language out of nowhere.

Spanish (rating **** ½ ) Among the languages I know, I think Spanish is the coolest! They write "and" & "or" as "y" & "o", how clever of them to represent the most frequent words with the simplest symbols. It's also very ingenious to cut the redundant subjects in a sentence when conjugation already made the meaning clear, and that accent marks é, ú etc are used only when necessary to indicate intonation. The coolest thing about Spanish is its consistency of pronunciation with writing; one can deduce the pronunciation right away from the way a word is written. Also, the idea of using an inverted question ( ¿ ) and exclamation mark ( ¡ ) is great. It signals what the tone of the coming sentence is like, for a questioning and exclamation sentence is entirely different, not just the final word. although it got all the inconvenience of European languages, however, its masculine and feminine save us lot of time in learning new vocabulary, brother is hermano, sister is hermana; son is hijo, daughter is hija...etc. So, unlike other European language like Swedish or German where gender is a pain in the ass, it's actually working miracle in helping us memorize more words. Its conjugation with subject (i.e. change of verb form with different subject) is also a convenient as it enable one to drop the subject as the suffix already indicates it.... Wonderful!
Perhaps it's due to its user-friendliness or its similarity with French, I managed to skip the whole beginner's Spanish and jumped right to the Intermediate level after learning it on my own for just one month. I began converse using very elementary vocabulary and imperfect grammar with my HKU classmate after few weeks, it was so fun since no one else knew what we were talking about and so we could talk about whatever we like.... e.g. Esta chica es muy guapa,  I really had a hard time in figuring out why this cool language was so unpopular in HKU, There were only 2 intermediate classes, Sometimes I was the only one student in one of the classes! They don't know that Spanish is the second most popular Western language after English? don't they know once you can speak Spanish, you will understand Portuguese, Catalan, Italian...etc. Instead the other HKU students learnt Italian instead... hmmm....
As I said, Spanish can be understood by Italian and Portuguese, however, they seem to get kind of angry when I speak or write Spanish to them. When I'm in Swiss, the Swiss always told me proudly how they can speak 4 languages -English, French, German and Italian.... I sometimes can't help laughing listening to their heavily accented English (worse than mine), I also speak Mandarin, Cantonese, ChiuChow and Sichuan dialects, why don't you count them as languages? In fact Spanish, Portuguese and Italian are more like dialects than distinct languages. English, French and German also looks identical in writing, although the most frequent words are totally different : die, the, la...etc. once mastered several tens of these most common words, the rest are just the same. Don't show off! Now, they are using EURO, and Europe is turning into one big country. so, perhaps next time I'm in Swiss, the Swiss will tell me: you know what? I can speak 4 European dialects! English European, French European and German European...etc. then i can proudly answer: So do I! Anyway, although Spanish sounds very good, but at times, it sounds like quarrelling!!

English (rating *** ½ ) Hmmm, it doesn't have as much conjugation (meaning verbs don't in general change with subjects) as French and Spanish do, much less than German or Russian!

The coolest thing about English as a European language is that there is no feminine/muscular forms!!! One single word "the" can replace all those stupid "la, le, el, els, les, los, las, der, die, das, den, det …etc".

Also, there isn't any redundant accent mark, e.g., â, é, ñ, ç…etc..

Another great thing about English is that we can put noun before noun without any additional words like of, de, du, de la, di ...etc. which is so common in other European languages. That's why, upon opening any users' manual, you will find that English is always at least 10% shorter than its French equivalent where A B is expressed as B de la A, For there exists no such clean and short way of expressing adjectival nouns in French, Italian or perhaps Spanish. When I do the electronic products export in Shenzhen, I write users' manual from time to time, English version is second in its conciseness only to Chinese, which is good.

However the pronunciation is difficult, there are for example 3 ways of pronouncing the letter "a" as in "apple", "father" & "date". I think that's bad for new learners. What's ironic is that, their bad way of writing and inconsistency with pronunciation is taken as a way to test their students' IQ in the form of something like SAT, I would rather they use their energy on something else.

There is ABSOLUTELY no point in memorizing how a word exactly look like on a book, a student who can spell "rhythm" is a good one, the one who writes "rythem" is a bad one. Actually, it was the ancestors of English who made a mistake, not us, why can't we just reform the English spelling to make it consistent? I see this a tremendous waste of brain energy which is just like memorizing the entire name list on a telephone book). Is this also the logic behind SAT? To use the language as a brain twister? Someone is proposing reforming the English language, making it easier and the pronunciation & spelling more consistent. It's a good idea, but I think there are still some imperfections in that scheme, (please search for WOMEX English reform in google)

French (rating *** ) For me, French is cool only when spoken by native French girls, and unlike Spanish which when spoken is like quarreling, it's so graceful and this is the only plus for French. But when spoken by guys, it's like a chain of murmur.
It's inconsistency in spelling and pronunciation isn't any better than English, its word is also unnecessarily longer than that of English. French use Qu to express “K”, PH to express “F”, French adds -MENT to to convert a verb into an adverb (c.f. –ly in English)
Another bad thing about French is it's clumsiness. When I ask "what do you do?" , in French it's "Qu'est ce que tu fais" (what is it that you do?) Ridiculous!!! In Spanish it's simple "¿ Que haces ? ". In addition, I also don't like the way French is written, for we never pronounce the ending of a word, that's why I know of native French who wrote words like "sommes" as "somment" without knowing that they are wrong. They addi lot of silent unpronounced letters at the end of most words.

Also, there exists something called liason meaning the last consonant - which isn't pronounced on it's own - of the previous word is pronounced with the syllable of the next word. and that they fuse "de" with "le" to form "du" and similarly "au" and "aux" are also produced. This implies you can't even speak correctly if you can't write!!

Crazy French numbers:

Here is something I found really really weird when I first learnt French: the number 97 is written in French as "quatre vignt dix sept" meaning " 4 times 20 plus 10 plus 7 " . 70 is written as "soixante dix" meaning sixty plus ten. Well I really don't know what to think of this. I find it very "user-unfriendly". it's like crazy!!! However, on the other hand, let's see this way, if a French kid can count to 97, this implies he can already do multiplication and addition!!! I wonder if French/Québecois are better in Maths? (And I seem to vaguely recall from this and that theorem in high school that lot of the mathematicians are French: L'hospital, de moivre), If so, why don't they write "100" as 9 to the power 2 plus 400 square root minus absolute -1 plus 23 divided by infinite? :-) i.e. [9 ² + \400 - -1 + 23 / ¤¤] After learning it for 3 years in an interest & non credit counting course in Hong Kong University and toped almost every single test/exam, I still think this is at most an OK language, it's been vastly overrated. I'm very puzzled when people keep saying it's the most beautiful language in the world. (btw. I was very disappointed at Paris – the supposedly most romantic city in the world summer 97). Very often you just hear them murmuring a chain of choking "vou", "que" and "voir" sounds. If you know what's good about it, let me know.

German (rating **½)

German looks really bad, I just don't know why there can be so many consecutive consonants in a word and so many long words in a sentence and so many long sentence in a paragraph. It really functions as a brain twister for all German, no wonder they called themselves the smartest people on Earth.

(worse still, the verb is always at the end of the sentence, you have to free up a free memory lot in your brain so that when you are done speaking with every word in that extra-long sentence, you still can remember what verb you have to spit out. )

It's also very inconvenient to use capital letter for every noun, it was OK at the time when we just wrote, but now with typing, does it mean we have to hold the SHIFT key every time we type a noun? For this, German are very similar to Japanese, in the mind of Japanese, nouns must be represented by Kanji(Chinese characters), if Chinese doesn't have equivalent words for that, Japanese invent their own Kanji. (e.g. the word for kite is a Japanese-invented Kanji). I guess German people are also very visual, that's why they choose to capitalize all the nouns to make it stand out more in their mind.

Apart from accent mark and standard English alphabets, there are also some weird symbols like "B" ? I'm not alone in this, Mark Twain got the same idea in the article "the awful German language". Isn't this why the French at Alsace Lorraine felt so sad when they were forced to learn German? (The Last Lesson - La derniere leçon)

Another thing which I find interesting about German is how it just "argues" with English in every way, I had a hard time in memorising the meaning of many German words, e.g. German "hell" means "bright" in English, how can a Hell be bright? German "gift" means "poison" in English, can you think of another pair at a further extreme? German "schnell" means fast, so, a snail is fast? Schnell-->Snail---> Snow--> Slow = Fast?? German "fast" again means something else.  Two very common German words that still give me headache whenever i try to decode their meaning is Wo and Wer, for I thought Wo= Who, Wer=Where,  but it turns out that Wo=Where, Wer=Who.

I don't know why neighboring country can develop words whose language are close cousins with exactly the opposite meanings. French for example got words like "but" meaning goal in English, but it's not as confusing as the German. It's still puzzling why German speaking people always speak better English than others. German are too good in English that I got humiliated everytime I heart they reply my German question in almost perfect English, giving me no motivation to talk in German anymore.

Chinese (rating *****½ for the writing system)

This is my mother tongue and is honored as the most difficult language in the world. I am blessed to have this complicated and varied language as my mother tongue, just can’t imagine the nightmare of learning it as a second language.

I feel pretty proud in introducing certain Chinese words like”warm温””to write,书 ”and hence the word“revision” to foreigners. Chinese words is good in depicting basic ideas like sun and moon. (see the diagram below)

The writing system is not as good as you think,words like 羣 ,吗。(see the Japanese review section) It’s laughable when you try to make sense of it, which is why Vietnamese quickly abandonned their Vietnamese Chinese characters when French introduced a new writing system for them.

Chinese: no grammar is the best grammar

The good thing about Chinese is that there's hardly any tense or conjugate of verbs, the words can be noun, verb and adjective at the same time without much change in it's form).  No feminine and masculine forms and conjugation of verbs

If you are a Westerner reading this, you might so get used to the use of plurals, feminine masculine, and conjugations of verbs that you think it’s natural for a noun or verb to exist in dozens of forms. However, you might not know what you are talking about! When I was in Egypt learning arabic, there is a German guy from my class. He was very puzzled at the use of DUAL in arabic. (in addition to singular and plural, arabic also have the form of dual, Two things is neither plural nor singular, it takes the ending of Dual.) I really enjoyed the perplexed look on his face, finally native speaker of German one of the most complex langauge (in terms of familine, masucline, neuter and various forms of verbs.) is puzzled at the very stuff that bother the speakers of the Asian languages.  Therefore, simplicity is a good thing.

the Pinyin system of Chinese is also simple and got hardly any exception and make full use of 26 letters.

However, one has to write so many strokes to write a word. Also, the so written word got hardly anything to do with its pronunciation (nor it's meaning for most of the words!!). I think it's due to its difficulty that there are so many illiterate in China. (I doubt if there can possibly be any in Spain where speaking means reading-



The slower than hell cumbersome writing system of CHinese (but no more!) 
Although I think it's written system is crappy, and had someone invented the phonetic system such as the Romanization or Latin 5000 years ago, the written system we use won't exist at all. They are good for decoration like the Roman numberals I, II, III, IV..XX, MM...etc. The system is cool for some words such as 1, 2, 3, sun, moon...etc which is symbolic, simple and convey the meaning well,

however, for more complicated ideas, it's just a second grade phonetic system using words with similar sounds which make us write many strokes.

(editted 2008: Well, I am just joking with what I wrote, now I realize that what I wrote won't function even as a joke. Now, the speed of typing in Chinese can surpass any other language thanks to the various computer input system. Chinese writing really sucks in the times of typewriter, even Japanese and Korean can be typed, but never Chinese; However, in the times of computer input, Chinese really kicks ass!! One can actually type 160 Chinese characters within one minute.)  Therefore, I’ve upgraded its rating from * star to a ***** star!

Chinese words are short! and expressive!!

“a picture is worth a thousand word”yes, but you have first to make sure that this word is not a chinese word, or else it’ll be just as good as expressive a picture!

However, what's really cool and unique about Chinese is that it got hardly any limitation on words, we don't have rigid rules on word orders, tense, word form, a single character can be noun, adjective, adverb and verb without change, it's so flexible! There is a favorite poem of mine with just 28 words (and hence 28 sounds) which convey some meaning that might take 200 English sounds (not words) to do the same: (search for renmiantaohua in google.)

Chinese word is so expressive that you can see it from the translation of the names of the movies. Take two classics as an example: Casablanca is just called Casablanca everywhere on Earth, even in Japanese and Korean. In Hong Kong it is translated as bukfeidipying 北非谍影(which means "Shadow of Spies in North Africa"). Gone with the Wind was translated in mainland China as Piao, this one word alone already signifys going with the wind. In Hong Kong, Gone with the Wind was translated as LuenSaiGaiYan 乱世佳人, which means "Graceful Lady in the times of chaos". The ratio of meaning to syllable is simply amazing. Human society use all kind of symbols for traffics and instructions. As a picture is worth a thousand words, therefore, i think Chinese characters have been under-used in the international world.
Isn't it amazing? I myself never know any other language which can do the same! Chinese language isn't very scientific coz each character got lot of meaning and thus not exact enough. That's why it's so romantic and everyone can get different state of mind from the same poems and the combination of words, It's like one can paint with Chinese pictographic words by simply putting them together in a poem. The combination is virtually infinite, submit to practically no rule of grammar and thus leave lot of rooms for one's imagination and creativity, perhaps unlike in English where Shakespeare has to create words to write? What's pity is that only someone with a very good Chinese foundation (meaning Chinese people) can appreciate this, so, foreigners can complain how difficult it is.

Michael Jackson should have sang Chinese.

One of my favorite songs is “my favorite things”which also happened to be the favorite song of Michael Jackson. This song is actually very Chinese, in the sense that it put lot of different unrelated pictures(raindrops on roses, whiskers on kitten, wild geese that fly with moon on the wings…etc.)together . If you like the state of mind this song put you into, you’ll love Chinese language and its poems too.

Too much romance is not always a good thing though:

bad: too romantic that it’s not precise enough,I’ve been reading taoteching for 30 years in Chinese, not until a more logical European who wrote some books with more logical western languages, did I begin to understand the Dao. The English version enlightened me, I then bought the French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean version, Chinese translation still remained hard to read. Fuzziness in language isn’t a good thing, even when you try to understand fuzzy concept like Zen whose ultimate task is to get rid of logic, it’s better use more logical language to get rid of logic.

Russian (* ½) I've been thinking of German as the worst European language until I came across Russian. I'm really curious as to the source of Russian, I used to get an impression of Russia as an old established empire. However, it seems that their language is just like Korean, which was planned and adopted artificially from other languages during a period of time. Its geographic location is more Asia than Europe, is this why the Western world used to consider her as an outsider? You can see this in its language. First, its alphabets are so difficult; many letters look as if they are from the children's game of "completing the pattern in one trip without your pen leaving the paper". If they adopt the alphabet from Greek, why not learn the whole thing? why can't they simply adopt the Latin letters? If it's just plain different (like Korean vs. Greek), it's understandable. However, it look as if it's purposely devised to be a spy's code to confuse speaker of languages of the Latin origin. For many latin alphabet like "h", N, K & R are written exactly reversed or inverted. This is not it yet, Check this out: Russian reversed R is the english Yo, Russian Y is English oo , Russian P is English R, English P is Russian , another russian is russian L, english I is russian N, english N is russian H, English H is Russian X, English X is russian C, Mandarin C is Russian "," the inverted "h" or Y-looking Russian letter is the English "CH" and most puzzling of all, Spanish "i" sound is written as "bi" in Russian... woooo....%) What do you think of the above spy code? I never know that those stuff depicted in James Bond movies are all true, Russians are all spy and devise their language as some kind of spy code to confuse the Western world. By doing this, they make their language easier to be learnt by communist Chinese who only need to start from scratch, than by the capitalist Westerners who need to unlearn their own mother tongue first and then start from zero while enduring the interference from the 1st tongue.
Well, USSR used to be a great friend of China, I really like to home stay there for sight seeing and business alike. but I'm not sure if I'll remain sane if I cramp this language into my head, it's like learning addition in one school and went to another one to learn mathematics where 2 is 3, 9 is 7, 4 is 0, 1 = 61 and + is x. I wrote the above before I officially learnt Russian in Moscow State University 2004.
Now, I have had 40 days of systematic Russian language training in Moscow. I am getting used to read Russian alphabets now. This did help me a lot when I learnt Mongolian the year 2006

Japanese (½) (2003, I will give it **** for the writing system) 

Japanese words are too long, just like their ritual. (not everything Japanese is long though…)

Just take any Chinese classic poems, you'll probably get like 10 times as many sounds in Japanese to convey the same meaning, it's so clumsy. Take "have you eaten?" as an example, there are only 3 words in Chinese "Chi Guo Ma?", but they use like 10 words in Japanese."ta be ta ko to a ri ma su ka?"(たべたことありますか?) It's just common sense that the more often a word is used, the shorter it should be, that's why the shortest words in any language is always la, le, the, of, it, for...etc. the word "I" is definitely one of the most used in any language and therefore should be the shortest, English it's "I", in French it's "Je", in Spanish it's "Yo", in German it's "Ich", in Swedish it's "Jag"...etc. All got practically just one sound. And guess what is "I" in Japanese? it's Wa-Ta-Shi! I don't know what were on the mind of the ancient Japanese when they can practically call themselves watashiわたし from day to day without feeling tired. the Japanese can actually call themselves わたしwatashi, and call you anataあなた everyday!

Japan got this funny culture of forming long setences by piling up words(which are already long) and put it for everyday use.  Sometimes I talked with Japanese bank-teller on the phone, she would put me on pause for just like 2 seconds. Before that happen, she would say “chotto mati kure masen ka?”()(that phrase last for 3 seconds) and then “omataseitashimasita”(which lasts for another 3 seconds.). So, to apologize for the 2 second lost, she would make me listen 6 seconds of her apology.

Good system for note-taking.

Japanese is a natural form of note taking, with just a quick glance, you can know the key point of the article, why is it so? because they use 3 kinds of fonts, Kanji (Chinese characters)(for nouns), "lower case" (for preposition, and abstract oft-used words) & upper case (for Foreign words), all adopted from Chinese characters but look very different, and therefore, enable them to glance thru the passage and grasp the meaning quick.

Honestly, I would even say that this writing system is better than Chinese, Chinese use the question word “ma”(嗎?) to denote a question. Gosh, it got like 12 strokes! even simplified version (吗?) got 6 strokes. but it’s Japanese counterpart “KA”(か?)got only 3 strokes. Lot of Chinese patriotic would like to argue that the way every chinese word is written got some holy meaning behind it. but the word  “MA”(嗎?) with 12 strokes is formed by putting a mouth(口) together with a horse (馬): A mouth because it’s an indicator that it’s only a word with sound and no meaning, a horse because a horse is pronounced as “MA”. This is how we write one of the most frequent word in Chinese!

However, this kind of advantage fade out as they(along with the Koreans) adopt so many foreign words, They use upper case for country names like France, American, this is OK and perhaps a better way of translation than Chinese. Yet, now, I think they have gone too far in importing directly even the most common words like "market", "table" as マーケット テーブル 테이블... I don't think they didn't even have table until they came across the Englishman?

and it is a very good form of note taking, just by a glance people can grasp the meaning of the whole page.

Japanese distills and retains the best of lot of stuff. this is also true in the field of language.


Korean (rating **) When I first knew that Korean even make distinction between the big brother of a girl (called obba오빠) and the big brother of a boy (addressed as hyongnim형), i thought Korean might be an even more "precise" language than Chinese, however... while they distinguish between the elder brother (and sister) of a male sibling and a female sibling, they actually use the SAME word 동생"tongsheng"(literally mean SAME BIRTH) for BOTH little sister and little brother, to distinguish it, one has to say male tongsheng or female tongsheng. this is so funny for me.

I prefer the Chinese writing system, but they . That's why Chinese words have always been in use in Korea despite the later invention of hangul -the most scientific symbols in the world. After WWII, they try to get as far from the influence of China as possible (at times, more so than in Japan). When the Chinese tourists visit Korea, they can read what's written in palaces, temples ...etc. but the Korean tour guide are usually clueless. I once knew a Korean Seoul University graduate who can't even read the Chinese characters for Koryo (which is an alternative name for Korea). I think Korean government should teach more Chinese characters instead of forcing a 3rd language on all the highschoolers. Anyway, the good thing about the Korean is its writing system. It has been crowned the most scientific writing system in the world, the alphabets were all invented according to the shape of the pronunciation organs: tongue,teeth, mouth, throat...etc. This writing system was really cool hundreds of years ago when the Koreans and Japanese are still using the Chinese characters to record their language. Koreans hangul can simplify the Chinese words by over 80% in stroke and ink. With only about 40 alphabets, it is indefinitely easier to be learnt than the Chinese language, especially in a time when education was limited to but a few privileged. OK, enough about the plus, here come the minus. perhaps I am not very used to it, but this writing system seems just so writing-unfriendly. Just because it is so simple, if you put the dot or stroke in a slightly different location, you got a different word. So, even if you write Korean, the words always look as if it was printed. unlike English, Chinese or Japanese where you can write the whole sentence in just one or two stroke. If you see someone writing with his pen hitting and leaving the paper 5times per second, you know he is writing Korean. (It's funny to notice how Arabic looks exactly the opposite, for Arabic, even if it's printed, it has to look as if it's handwritten. I can imagine the frustration of Korean learning Arabic.) Another thing is about the removal of Chinese characters from their language. Japanese also tried to limit the use of Chinese words in their language, however, what Koreans did was almost a 100% removal. however, although, students weren't taught much about Chinese words, but you can keep spotting them in scattering in newspaper (if Chinese words are not used, confusion might result), in some older and formal books and documents, in the historic monuments (funny that sometimes Chinese tourists can understand what is written inside the temple while the Korean tourist guy knows none). Moreover, 70% of the Korean vocabulary are of Chinese origins, some got identical pronunciation when written in hangul, but not so when written in Chinese. Unlike the past, nowadays, with free education and the high availability of paper, book, computer...etc. It took just as much trouble for a Chinese kid to learn Chinese and Korean kid to learn Hangeul. If they make Chinese characters an integral part of Korean again (just like what the Japanese are doing now), this will increase the abundance of Korean language. In a technologic era like this one, there isn't much point to simplify your own language which just make it easier for foreigners to learn, while all kids are genius in learning the mother language, you don't need to worry much about it. You know, Hangul was originally made to look like the square Chinese characters, it is supposed to go along with it. I think writing Korean with a mixture of Chinese characters is better and more effective. Although Korean and Japanese share almost identical grammar, the pronunciation is so different. Sometimes, Korean might sound like quarreling while Japanese sounds like cute little kids asking for lollipop. Korean, just like French, also got something called "liason", I therefore find Korean words the most difficult to be pronounced. while reading Korean text to my Korean classmates, instead of speaking them sentence by sentence, I need to utter them word group by word group, as the ending consonant will fuse with the beginning word of the next word to form a new pronunciation of its own. As mentioned, Korean and Japanese share an almost identical grammar, just like its clumsy cousins, sometimes it can't be being very unnecessarily long. In some cases, even longer than its Japanese counterpart. For example, "can't do it" is just "dekinaiできません" in Japanese, but in Korean it's "hal su obsoyo할수없습니다", which literally means " the mean of doing it doesn't exist".

Thai (**) Thai got a different kind of masculine/feminine system, the 'I' for men are Pom, and that for Women is 'Dichan'... Men ends the sentence with Krap, and Women end it with Ka, perhaps necessary in a place with some transsexuals :).   I think the Thai writing system (together with Arabic) is the most complicated and confusing one, and you are hearing this from a Chinese. many letters might look similar to one another, but they have nothing to do with each other, and by combining the vowels together, you can got a vowel which very often got nothing to do with its components(just like how H20 got nothing to do with Hydrogen or Oxygen), plus, unlike every other language, the vowel doesn't always follow the consonant, it can be above, below, before, after the consonant, and even totally omitted in some case!  to make it worse, they don't separate words, they use space as full stop between sentences only. (to use the previous sentence as an example, imagine there is no space between the words, it will be like theyusespaceasfullstopbetweensentencesonly; and then omit the 'o', put 'a' after the consonant, write e as a combination of i and u , put before and after the consonant in the word, double ee as ua), it will be like ithyuiusuispcuasafullstpibtwuanuiiisntncuuusnly; It does look confusing for foreigners to learn right? and I have not put them above and below the consonant (which got other letters that look similar but pronunciation is totally unrelated, unlike Arabic, if they look similar, they also pronounced a bit similarly)! and this is how i spent 50% of my time trying to put the vowel back into 'right' order before i can read any sentence, before I finally surrendered. To make it worse, I learnt a set of alphabet in Tokyo before going to Bangkok, and on my first days in Bangkok, I was so confused and wondered if I was really reading Thai from the various signs and boards around, for the set of fonts that i learnt starts with a tiny circle, the direction and orientation of the circle is crucial in telling which letter it is referring to, i was taken aback gazing at all those fonts without circle, we also have this in English, for example, A looks differently in A, a, and a.It did recall my experience in primary school one staring at the exam paper and wonder for a second if 'a' is really the 'a'I learnt. However, just imagine my frustration when most of the 44 Thai alphabet got this 'problem'.

Highlights: Men means smelly in Thai language, it’s pronounced with contracion of your nostril, this gotta be the more expressive word for smelly in all languages.


What made me want to learn arabic?

1.Arabic looks cool.as do most things that people won’t understand

well, perhaps because for untrained eyes, every letter look the same, that’s why it’s cool to be able to decode it.    it remains one of the most difficult languages that i have ever attempted. i can recognize the Arabic alphabet which is also used in Uyghur, Farsi...etc. 

I really enjoy writing Arabic in front of people, and it looks so beautiful, however, I am really not sure how many % of that enjoyment is built upon the look of being puzzled of untrained eyes. Someone with untrained eyes, not knowing the key point is to look for the position of the dots, would consider every letter the same, (if they can tell from where till where begin and end a letter at all!!).

but without the vowels Arabic can be written faster than other languages. or so does people argue

Just like Korean, Arabic words depends on where to put the dots (video 12-2)

Arabic: if joining together or not and where to put the dots is a crucial way to distinguish a letter, how fast can that be?


Difficult to pronounce the word Omit of Vowel as a form of short hand.

It’s difficult to pronounce Arabic because

1- there are lot of vowels that never existed in other languages

2- the Arabic script is defective, even you see a “ ”it can still be pronounced either as an U or an O.  (I think this is why people from Gansu- The Muslim part of China, have difficulty in differentiate u and o while speaking mandarin)

3- They leave out the shot vowels, which mean if you see some consonants put together such as KTB, you have to guess if there exist any vowels between them, it can be KiTuB, even if you guess it right, you have to decide whether to pronounce u as o or u.

My discontent grow when i began to learn Uyghur later, I found out that Arabic in fact doesn’t has to be the way it is. Because Uyghur also use a modified Arabic script  and yet they don’t have any ambiguity in representing all the sounds.  If Uyghur can do it, why can’t Arabic??

However, as they write with vowel omitted, it's difficult to recognize the word or even read it out。 There are lot of prefix to be added to the words, this make it hard for me to even find that word in dictionary.


Mongolian(*) All of my friends call me a language-fanatic, until the day when I told them that I was gonna learn Mongolian in Ulanbatoor. They then began to call me language-freak. I used to joke about what I decided to learn this way:"You can not think of a language more useless than Mongolian, can you?"

You know how one language seem to import foreign word letter by letter for objects or concepts that never existed in one's country before. Mongolians seem to have used the Mongolian tent too much that they don't even have their own word for "window". As I learnt Korean before, that's why when the teacher told me that in Mongolian, window in chonho. I was surprised that they even use Sino-Korean word chuanghu as a loan word for window! I know Microsoft exported windows all over the word, didn't know that China also exported windows to Mongolia hundreds of years ago. Anyway, I guess our windows are more stable and crash less. haha :D


As Cantonese, it’s pretty easy for me to learn Vietnamese or Thai, they share similar tones. The only difficulty is the way Vietnamese put adjective after noun instead of the other way round.

We all have different standard for beauty. In Asia, we prefer similar difference in the judgment of beauty seem to exist for the (female?)voice of a language.  while the Chinese friends that i know of don't find Vietnamese particularly impressive, Westerners seem to consider the female voice in speaking Vietnamese as voices from heaven;

To the French colonizer: Can you revise French first, before your “Frenchise”Vietnamese?

Vietnam, Korea and Japan all used Chinese characters, Japanese and Korean invented their scripts and they function well.  However, Vietnamese invented a new Vietnamese words based on Chinese, piling up already cumbersome Chinese words together to form the even more complicated Vietnamese words called “Chu nom”.  That’s why when the French colonizer came, they decide to “help”them invent a simpler script using the French spelling. However, Can you guys revise your own French writing system first before you “Frenchise” Vietnamese?

French way of spelling is too tedious, they should use F instead of PH, use K instead of QU. Now, Vietnamese also use this kind of spelling. 

Indonesian/Malayu (****) The easiest language on earth, spoken by quite a few population,  why don’t we use this as an official language for UN?  (instead of all those difficult Chinese, Arabic and Russian?)

Indonesian/Malayu, the language got the best of both words, the easy latin writing system, and a easy Chinese like grammar. If you are experienced enough with language, you can speak it in 10 days!

- No Chinese characters, only Latin alphabet

- No accent mark, unlike European languages, or Vietnamese

- no plural form, no need to add s,

- no tense, “will”is akan, “has already” is sudah, no tons of conjugations of verbs

- no feminine/masculine/neuter form for every noun, unlike German or French


If your only memory about language learning is what I wrote above, then without learning any Indonesian, it’s like you’ve already taken 1 years’ grammar course. Every word you learn from dictionary is immediately usable. (you don’t have to check its gender to use the article, check its conjugation form to use the verb, or worry if you can find the word you see in dictionary at all! for fear that the one you saw is already a conjugation)

©Nald Chow 1998-2000, All Rights Reserved.

below: Nald taking language courses from around the world!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I learnt 12 languages in 10 years from around the world

Nice to meet you, I am Nald Chow, an un-cunning amateur linguist

(Above: My namecard with my name written in different languages)

How Language learning become part of my life:
People often ask why I spent so much time and capital travelling and learning languages, but it is actually from travelling and languages that I learnt I got my money. After graduation I got my first job in an Indian watch company in Hong Kong which asked for Spanish-speaking people to handle their business expansion in South America, although after 3 months, they cancelled the project, but I did get my first job by typing the word Spanish in an Recruitment page. Then 5 days after resignation, I got another watch company asking for French speaking people for their expansion to Europe, and I got the job, though I left after one year to start my own business, but I did go to Swiss, Germany, France and Spain and did use my languages well. And then I started my own internet sales business and I sold stuff to Japan through the internet, at that time I couldn't even speak one single Japanese sentence, but with some guess work, as Japanese are using Chinese character, i managed to get thru , months later, I flew to Tokyo to learnt Japanese for 3 months and did the business there through the internet. Then, being the speaker of 5 languages and 4 dialects give me enough motivation and incentive to learn more and experience more. In this age of internet, one can remote control the business from everywhere, and after two decades of frustration/struggle with English, I was finally glad that i was born at the right time and right place. I think the power and usefulness of language has not been fully realized in this internet age, especially when combined with industrial sourcing and networking, I was surprised myself how i can just get money from Japanese and use only a fraction of that to buy items for them from American websites and post them in Japanese websites. I can also sell Japanese stuff to Europe by the same token. (Unfortunately, that was how it used to be, making money online isn’t easy at all nowadays.)  These days, I live in the manufacturing capital of the world- Shenzhen (the brother of Obama is also here :) . I see people from around the world coming here sourcing for electronic products, I have spoken with them in English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Vietnamese, Thai and even Mongolian.
Although I find it pretty hard for me to learn certain languages... like Swedish and German, whose grammar is difficult and whose speaker are too good at English to leave me any chance of practice with them, or Arabic, Hungarian which I have the hardest time so far, but i believe I have something to share about language learning and cultural differences, that's why here I am here to open a blog about this.

My obsession with language learning:

I kept thinking language learning just as a hobby, until …

1. …one day some friends can’t help laughing upon hearing my plan of going to Ulan Bator to learn Mongolian, while they have already heard enough about my language-learning. It seemed that I ran out of useful languages to learn. When I think about this, it might be right, you can not think of a language more useless than Mongolian, can you?

2. Some of my madness with language is seen from the design of my living room:

What you see above is the TV wall of my living room, with the world map as the background, and famous proverbs from around the world written in different languages. The centre is my 42” TV which I used as a PC monitor.  The part of the map occupied by the TV is carved out and put on the stool before the sofa:

The following is my draft design in Corel draw.

  3. I was a big fan of Tony Robbins (until he divorced his wife perhaps? haha), one of the first things I did when i get to a new country is to rush into a bookstore, buy a local version of his book. I find this as a good way to learn foreign languages, because even if I don’t know what those words mean, I do remember on which position what the whole sentence is trying to convey.

Above: you can see the same book in French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Korean, Thai, Arabic, Russian, Indonesian and even Danish (a language that I don’t know at all, but manage to guess some words out from my vague memory of Swedish.)

Here is a list of the countries where I attended a language institute to learn the languages:

how long and where did I learnt it LANGUAGE My own fluency Certificate and photo,
If you care to know.
1995-98: Hong Kong University Language Centers: 3 years of French/Français,
1 year of Spanish/Español
1 month of Swedish/Svenska
summer 1997: l'université de Bourgogne, Dijon France 1 month of French **** ½
2001 Tokyo Japanese language インターカルト日本語学校 a total of 9 months of 日本語 Japanese from 3 different institutes. ***½
spring 2002 learnt 3 months of Korean at 연세대학교 어학당
a total of 3 months of Korean from Yonsei University. ***
Berlin  GLS German Language School
3 months of German from Berlin, 1 month of German from Hong Kong and 1 month of German from Tokyo  
2003-04 Thailand Bangkok: studied several times the language of Thai
a total of 1 month of Thai from Bangkok and Tokyo **½
2004 winter Egypt, Cairo: learnt 2 months of Arabic in ili   *****½
2004 summer Russia: Moscow State University Московского государственного университета имени М.В.Ломоносова (МГУ)
2005 Vietnam Ho Chi Minh City: Vietnamese In Saigon (Truong Đai hoc Khoa hoc Xã hoi và Nhân văn)
2006 Indonesia Jakarta: Indonesian
2006 Mongolia Ulan Bator: learnt Mongolian for more than a month
2007 stayed mainly in Shenzhen due to the electronic product export business that I do
20xx plan for the future, I intend to study Turkish together with Uyghur, heard that they are very similar.