I used to be fluent in Chinese (Mandarin). Or I must think so, after staying in China for five years and studying my B.E. totally in Chinese. After going back to Nepal, I couldn’t get any job related to my study for one year and worked with two Chinese construction companies as their interpreter and translator. So I could, at least, maintain my level (of whatever fluency I had).
For some years after that there were occasional meetings with Chinese people, especially businessmen and people working in different construction projects in Nepal. Sometimes, there were document translations to do. So I was somewhat able to practice my Chinese.
My confusions started after coming to Japan and learning Japanese. Japanese language has borrowed its ‘kanji’ from Chinese (in which it is pronounced as ‘hanzi’). ‘Hiragana’, ‘Katakana’ too are developed from these ‘kanzis’. As ‘kanzis’ are generally written similarly but pronounced differently, there is some confusion. But it can be managed because most of the Japanese pronunciations are only little bit deviations of Chinese pronunciations. Japanese are still using complex characters for writing, where as in mainland China, they simplified after the communist revolution of 1949.
Chinese has very difficult sounds (and intonations too! I always dreaded those 4 different intonations!) but the grammar is very easy. On the other hand, Japanese has very simple and much fewer sounds but its grammar is very complicated. But learning Japanese grammar was not much difficult for me, as it is very much similar to Nepali grammar.
Among the 13 students in our Japanese class, 9 were from mainland China, 1 was from Taiwan (so 10 Chinese in total!), 1 was from India and 2 (me and Mr. Sharma) were from Nepal. So I could practice my Chinese a lot in that class. I used to joke saying ‘I am learning Japanese but improving my Chinese!’ But that was what gave me problems.
During passage readings or conversation practices, I started to get confused. I used to read some kanzis in Chinese and some in Japanese. I clearly remember practicing one simple conversation from the book.
yima nan gatsu desuka.
What month is it now?
Hachi gatsu desu.
It is August
I was B and everybody was laughing after I finished reading that phrase. I read it as ba gatsu desu instead of Hachi gatsu desu. This ‘ba’ is the Chinese pronunciation of ‘八’.
Such incidents have happened many times. Not only in reading, in daily conversations too! When I want to say something in Chinese, sometimes, Japanese words come unknowingly or vice versa. Recently, in the university party after graduation, there was a Chinese student who graduated from another department. We had a brief talk in Chinese.
Fellow graduate: Ni xianzai kaishi zuo shenme ne?
What will you do from now?
Me: wo zai daxue zuo kenkyuuyin de gongzuo.
I will be working in the University as a researcher.
Both of us laughed after I finished the sentence, because that kenkyuuyin is Japanese and the rest of the sentence is Chinese. Chinese for this kenkyuuyin is yanjiuyuan.
In such instances, I always remember a funny Chinese man I met in Toulouse, France in the summer of 2004. We (me and my lab colleague from Thailand) were there for a conference. We were looking for cheap lunch and finally entered a Chinese (Sichuan) food restaurant (we had our lunch there everyday during our stay). The waiter (from Xian in China) was a man of our age and was very talkative. Once he was admiring me for knowing 5 languages.
He: 你会说好多语言！You can speak so many languages!
Me: 还不够。我还要学斯巴尼亚语。Not enough yet. I want to add Spanish. (I was just kidding!)
He: 你不要学那么多语言！脑子会困的。你知道luosenbao 吗？那一个国家的人会说很多语言。结果一个文学家也没有出来 Don’t learn too many languages! Your brain will get into trouble. Do you know Luxembourg? People from that country can speak many languages but they don’t have any good writers.
Ha ha ha! What a funny concept?! I was really amused! How can he say that? Luxemberg without any writers! How can your linguistic ability hamper your creativity? I am not sure!
Yes, your brain gets into trouble after you learn a few languages, it is for sure! May be the processors in our brain have limited abilities. But again, I am not sure!