Thursday, December 30, 2010

Spanish vs. Chinese

I was interested to see Nicholas Kristof argue for learning Spanish instead of Chinese, and insofar as it reflects my own decisions, I suppose I agree. However, this piece of supporting logic is weak:
Hispanics made up 16 percent of America’s population in 2009, but that is forecast to surge to 29 percent by 2050, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center.
But almost all of those people will speak English! Why is it beneficial to learn Spanish to talk to Antonio Villaraigosa? Not only that, the fact that they will be English-speakers is an important counter to people who oppose immigration on the grounds that Mexicans and Central Americans won't assimilate. Kristof's point, which again is wrong for the reason I just mentioned, could nonetheless be twisted into a fear-feeding illustration of the degree to which immigration is threatening America's essence: Now they are telling us that there will be so many foreigners, we have to learn Spanish!

Also, while everyone agrees that Chinese is extremely difficult to master, this kind of delicate problem emerges in any language:
The standard way to ask somebody a question in Chinese is “qing wen,” with the “wen” in a falling tone. That means roughly: May I ask something? But ask the same “qing wen” with the “wen” first falling and then rising, and it means roughly: May I have a kiss?
In other words, you adapt your tone to the context, and if you fail to do so properly, the meaning is confused. Hmm. Sounds like every other language to exist since we made the jump to the spoken word. You could write the same paragraph using the porque/por qué distinction, not to mention trickier terrain like the difference between pelar and pelársela (this one is especially prone to unintended offensiveness), to make Spanish seem impossible to someone who doesn't speak it.


Anonymous said...

Have you ever tried learning Mandarin? It's unreal and does NOT compare with learning Spanish in the US.

Worth it to little kids, not to adults...

pc said...

No I've never tried, and that wasn't really the point of my post, just that the arguments Kristof was making weren't so hot. I didn't intend to say, nor do I think that I did say, that Spanish was anywhere as hard as Chinese.