First of all, there are no letters. Yes, I know, it was difficult for me to understand this concept when I first began studying Chinese, and it has been difficult for me when I try to explain this to others. So, how do you create words if there are no letters? There are what they call radicals, symbols that mean specific things. For example, there is a female radical that appears in words that relate to females or women (such as she, mother, daughter, milk, cow, etc.). And words are made through combining radicals.
I studied Chinese for nearly seven years. I remember when I first started—it was back in fifth grade in middle school. The school had recently announced the opening of Chinese classes—once a week, on a Saturday. What else? It was free. I didn’t really pay attention to the announcement, but my mother did. And the fact that she did not have to pay anything made her pay more attention. And one day she told my sister and I that she was going to sign us up for Chinese classes. Naturally, my sister and I laughed at the thought and ignored it. We did not laugh for long though because we found ourselves in an actual Chinese class the following Saturday.
Had you told my sister and I that we would continue to study Chinese for the following seven years, we would have laughed at the thought. But here we are seven years later, and I’ve only just now stopped taking Chinese. (My sister, however, is now in the Intermediate I level.)
A year and a half after I had first started studying Chinese, my friend and I passed an exam offered through the Chinese consulate in Jordan, and we were given the opportunity to travel to China to attend a youth conference. That was my first visit to China. I had surprised myself and my parents, who realized that I must have been learning something all along. My second visit, several years later, was as a “translator” for my father during one of his trips.
I was struck by the richness of Chinese culture, and how the Chinese language is one of the portals through which one can learn about the facets of this culture. For example, when we were learning the pronoun you, the teacher emphasized that there are two main ways to say it: Nǐ and Nín, the former you use when addressing a friend, sibling, or someone of a similar age, and the latter you use when addressing a parent, an elder, or a teacher. Through this example, I took note about the importance of teachers in the Chinese culture. Another example is the literal translation of the word lǎoshī (teacher), which translates to old teacher. Old, in this sense, refers to the wisdom and insight of older people.
Unexpectedly, through studying Chinese, I also learned more about my mother tongue (Arabic), and my second language, English. While I was studying Chinese grammar and sentence structure, I would unconsciously compare how sentences are formed in all three languages. As the differences became starker I began to better understand each language—and, thus, culture.
A feeling of euphoria rushes through my brain when I see a Chinese walking past me in school or in the dorm because it is another chance for me to speak Chinese. Had someone told me, seven years ago, that I will someday be able to speak Chinese, I would have called that person a nahfeh. Today, while I still haven’t learned how to say that word in Chinese, I can proudly say 我会说汉语！