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Nov 20

Dreaming In Chinese: A Review

Posted on Saturday, November 20, 2010 in Books

Cover of Dreaming in Chinese

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language by Deborah Fallows is a highly enjoyable read for those interested in learning about the language spoken by over 1.2 billion people (depending on how you define "Chinese"). There are a number of favorable reviews of Fallows' book online (including here, here, and here). Personally, I disagree with the CS Monitor's review in wanting "a more cohesive narrative arc". I don’t think that was the point. I saw this as “a Sunday newspaper column” collection and enjoyed them for the taste of Chinese culture and language that they provided; a table full of dim sum, if you will.

So, what does Dreaming in Chinese have to offer the average conlanger? Many will no doubt already be familiar with Chinese, but Fallows provides a good cultural-context overview for artlangers to consider. One example is the "overuse" by Americans of "Please", "Thank you", and other politeness words and phrases being seen as superfluous in that it puts distance between two speakers. This is in the "When rude is polite" chapter introduced by the phrase Bú yào " Don't want, don't need". Sounds like Klingon, but for entirely different "cultural" reasons.

One thing that everyone seems to know about Chinese is its use of tones and its limited syllables. Fallows does a great job of highlighting this in her chapter entitled "Language play as a national sport" (introduced by the words Shī, shí, shî, shì "Lion, ten, to make, to be"). The author brings up Chao Yuen Ren who wrote a story entitled "The Lion-eating Poet in the Stone Den" composed of 92 characters, all of various tones of the syllable shi. Tones are used by a little over 41% of the languages in the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), whereas over at the Conlang Atlas (CALS), only a little over 24% use tones. This would appear to be a largely untapped feature for conlangs, although 30 conlangs at CALS do exhibit a (self-reported) "complex" tone system.

One conlang-specific item I was unaware of in relation to China was the extent to which Esperanto has been studied there. In her chapter entitled "A billion people; countless dialects", Fallows talks about Esperanto once being suggested as a common national language although it "was quickly abandoned as a far-out idea". The author's first family visit to China was as part of the World Esperanto Congress in Beijing in 1986.

Overall, Fallows does an excellent job of fulfilling her stated purpose with the book: to tell "the story of what I learned about the Chinese language, and what the language taught me about China." One is not going to learn all the idiosyncracies or fine grammatical points about Chinese, but if you’re looking for a user-friendly introduction to the fascinating language and culture of the Middle Kingdom, Dreaming in Chinese is highly recommended.