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Fri. Sep 25th, 2020

Digital Valhalla

Desert of the real


4 min read

Every so often, be it ADD, intuition, adaptability, or just plain seeing the writing on the wall, yours truly gets pulled in wildly unexpected quadrants. In this case: Mandarin. Yours truly is learning Mandarin. How to speak it, how to write it, how to read it. 3-5 hours a day. Every day. The goal, which may or may not be too ambitious, is HSK level 3 by January 2021. HSK 4, realistically, this time next year. HSK 5? We’ll see. It might be two years. Maybe more. Why? Well… one would be even a bigger fool than I not to start now!

This amounts to ~600 words. As it goes, it’s been really fun. What’s really interesting is that now, at about 5 weeks in, there’s this experience of a fog lifting as these previously exotic and intimidating characters become sensible and familiar. Watching this process happen is extremely rewarding. Being fortunate enough to recall a time when even English letters were still foreign, it is, in some way, a reminder of very early pre-literate childhood; one that lends insight into thought and the subjective experience itself.

The other interesting thing is that although to some extent one can break down and parse the symbols to intuit the underlying meaning, at this very early stage that is not yet possible. It’s pure acquisition. The symbol for “no”, for example, just *is* that symbol. A = A. 不 is 不, it means “no” because that’s just what it means.  It’s pronounced bù because that’s just how it’s pronounced. It’s an interesting shifting of modalities – a break from analysis and an exercise in synthesis.

The real challenging part isn’t so much the complexity of the “symbols” (hanzi) – that part is quite fun. They’re fun to draw and there’s a certain rewarding feeling with getting the strokes right (dopamine put to its intended use rather than abused! what a novel concept). Thinking of them not so much as letters, but rather objects in and of themselves makes the whole process less daunting. An alphabet with thousands of letters? GFY. No way. Recognize a few thousand objects? Ever stop to think how many distinct objects you already recognize? Bag, dog, shopping cart, remote control, guitar, sword, tree, tits, etc… countless, for sure. What’s a couple thousand more? The app Skritter is great for this. Pricey, yes. But yours truly looks at as an investment.

The real challenge is listening. This, in itself, is a skill everyone could stand to refine. It’s a tonal language with some consonants that are very much alike yet distinct: gradations of “ch” and “sh”, for example. One realizes quickly that language is processed based on previous assumptions and closest fits. With no or little previous experience to draw from and pigeonhole utterances into automatically, one is forced to stop being lazy and really listen. Tone of voice merely conveys emotion. With Mandarin, not so much, tone conveys meaning – literal meaning – facts, not feelings, and that’s a real hurdle. Speak any other language with an american accent and one is still intelligible albeit with an american accent. Do that in Mandarin, and one is worse than foreign sounding, they’re uttering nonsense. One must adapt a “silly sounding” Chinese accent. There is no other way around this. It helps tremendously to be good at impressions.

All that aside, there’s some positives. No conjugation. No tenses. You either eat, eat, or eat. Not eat, ate, or eaten. Additionally, the word order is basically the same as an English. It doesn’t exactly even-out, but one can take some solace in knowing that it definitely could be harder.

What remains to be seen is this: will, in the process of acquiring this (or any) language, a separate subsystem or sub-personality develop as a result? Of those surveyed who are bilingual, all have reported that, yes, their personality does change slightly depending on the language they are thinking or speaking in.

More on that to follow.

At any rate, DigitalValhalla is somewhat on the back-burner. Not totally forgotten, but de-prioritized until satisfactory progress in Mandarin has been made. At which time a “Language” section will be opened so as to incorporate these two ventures. No doubt where Hisself will butcher written Mandarin with banal blog posts so as to better facilitate eventual mastery of the language.

Meanwhile, pleas enjoy the feature modules of DiVa


Additions and feature enhancements will pickup in, say, November.

That is all for now.

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