Disyllabicity is the Answer

Mandarin Chinese is a monosyllabic language, right? Analytic; tones; 21 initials, 3 medials, 2 nucleuses, 4 codas. Not a lot of options. Yet there’s even a few gaps in those possibilities! That leaves 1,668 possible syllables. (That’s 417 different sets of segments before tone.) So where does Mandarin get all its words? How do people even talk about anything in such a mathematically opposed language, you might ask.

The answer is you’re wrong!

Mandarin is not a monosyllabic language! That would be ridiculous given its phonotactical constraints. Only a language with very heavy syllables via consonant clusters would be able to be strictly monosyllabic analytic.

Mandarin is primarily disyllabic.

So now if we do the math, we find that 1668 monosyllabic words become 2,782,224 disyllabic words. (A simple permutation: 16682). Add the monosyllabic words back in and you get 2,783,892 possible words. That sounds like quite enough for a proper language. The highest claims for the size of the English lexicon are about a million, so 2.7 is plenty to have the same sized language. (They do use way more of their possibilities because their phonology is so constrained.) But—disyllabic words are not the end of Mandarin’s lexical possibilities. There are tri- and quadrisyllabic words, many combing di- and/or monosyllabic words, which tend to cover more specific or technical terms. This means that Mandarin has more than enough possibilities for people to not be confused with choosing between 50 monosyllabic homophones all day long, as the perception of Chinese tends to be. “It’s so complicated!” the quivering language learner yelps. “Chinese is the hardest language to learn”, an astute phylogenist submits.

It seems though that the hardest part is getting around language hearsay and realizing that of course Mandarin speakers get along just fine with all the phonological tools they have at their disposal—and there are plenty of words in their language, if you just tune into the music of it.

Finally Some Good Reasons for Learning

I came across this article that actually gives some good reasons for the benefits of learning another language other than vague promises of discovering new semantic frontiers. (Which may happen here and there, but it’s only subtle, the difference between saying gabion and wire baskets filled with rock and stone.) This is, of course, aside from the obvious functional/pragmatic benefit of needing to communicate with someone. These are finally good reasons in the realm of geographically isolated, monolingual Americans doing it as a hobby.

Why It Makes More Sense Than You Know to Learn a Second Language

The first one is the weakest reason, but I like how he says “communicate more clearly” instead of “use proper grammar”. Not sure if it does that, but at least he avoided sounding prescriptivist. Self-awareness of your native language is really only marginally useful, though it is awfully entertaining. Not knowing the linguistics of your own language won’t prevent you from communicating or creating art with it.

The rest are about studies that have found cognitive benefits to bilingualism. I haven’t looked at them, and this is Huffington Post, but the summaries seem sound.

And all around more substantive than the usual pontificating on foreign tongues and other Whorfian things.

Japanese Language Online Resources

Anytime you wanna start learning a language, you go to online sources first, but there’s always a bit of crap to cut through, a little sorting, a little digging, so here’s all of that crap pre-cut.

Teach Yourself Japanese: A website from Shinji Takasugi. This is a classic and the one I first got started on, way back in 9th grade Spanish.

Memrise: Best place to start for any language. The liberation of Rosetta-Stone-style learning. Online. For free. The founder, Ed Cooke, is known as the Grandmaster of Memory.

Wikipedia is always a great place to start, especially the phonology page so you can get the real story on the sounds or at least better than pretty much every resource will tell you. (Lemme know if you find one that uses IPA and proper linguistic explanations.)

Those are the prime sources on the Internet. There’s more, but all the rest require so more digging, signing up for accounts or trials and just aren’t gonna get you started on learning Japanese like the ones above will. The next best step is to check out these books.

Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day: A good introduction to the absolute basics, complete with stickers.

Kanji Pict-O-Graphix: An indispensable book of mnemonics for 1225 of the 1945 kanji.

Barron’s Japanese Grammar: One of the best laid out grammar books out there. I don’t know how much they’ve updated, but the 2nd edition has a less visually oppressive cover, fwiw, but it doesn’t look like the layout inside suffers the same “improvement”.

These are the resources I’ve had experience with and some of them seem to be the best. There are a bunch of other online resources I’ve found or had minimal experience with, so here’s the list of those

Livemocha: This site is about asking qualified speakers language questions. They have lessons too, which are pretty good actually.

Busuu: Has a decent amount of trial material. Not the prettiest site, but it’s not painful.

About.com: They have a ton of articles to explore on all kinds of topics. Really helps with semantics, pragmatics, and culture.


Learn Japanese Pod: Apparently pod is a cool word. You can get some stuff for free on here, but their subscription is way to expensive. They do have a great Space Invaders kana learning game for free, though.

Omniglot: For getting an overview of the Japanese writing systems.

The rest of these sites I haven’t looked at, but they look like you could get some good information out of em. I put them in order of how clean the site looks…

Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese
Níhongo o Narau
easyJapanese.org: Has kana Java games
Japanese Free Lessons

If you want a longer, exhaustive list of resources check out this link.

Tofugu’s 100 Best Resources for Learning Japanese

For dictionaries, so far I’ve found these. I haven’t gone through them thoroughly yet.

About.com List of Top 10 Japanese Dictionaries
Saiga Kanji Dictionary For looking up kanji, not for translation
Tangorin Great furigana and romanization

I’ll review Youtube videos later.