My affair with Chinese and Japanese

First of all, sorry for not posting much during the summer, but I have been quite busy preparing a moving abroad and other issues. In September the blog will have more activity again, but meanwhile enjoy today’s entry.

Some weeks ago I told Mª Teresa Moya that I would write about my experience studying Chinese and Japanese, so here you are! My affair with Asian languages started around 2005, when my mother bought me a Madarin Chinese phrasebook as a joke. I have always loved learning languages and when I was 9 years old I learnt to count to 10 in several languages, Japanese and Chinese among them. In 2005 people was starting to say that China was becoming a powerful country and that “Chinese is the future”. In this context my mother decided to buy me this phrasebook to see whether I liked the language, but she probably didn’t expect me to devour the book as if it was a novel. I was really intrigued about the symbols that constitute words and I enjoyed looking for similarities in symbols for words with similar meanings. It was a whole new world for me to discover, and I wanted to learn everything I could!

More or less in that same period I also started to get interested in Japanese, and the cause was manga and anime, which is probably the reason why 95% of Japanese students get into the language. After watching many movies and episodes of series in Japanese with subtitles I started to understand words and sentences. Again, my love for languages made it easy for me to assimilate the grammatical constructions and the basics of the language. Of course, the writing system was fascinating and I started to study the syllabaries by myself thanks to the many resources online for Japanese. Since I had liked the Chinese phrasebook, I bought its Japanese counterpart, from the publisher Espasa. People have always said that languages are easy for me and that I learn fast, and they are right, since after a few months studying Japanese by myself I had achieved a basic but good level.

The phrasebooks that became my first contact with these languages

The phrasebooks that became my first contact with these languages

By that time I was a high-school student, and I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to study in university. I had some options in mind, most of them related to languages, and I started to think about a degree on Asian Languages, but it was still early to make a decision. Life was easy back then : ) In the summer of 2006 I took my first Chinese course, a 1 month summer course in the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas of A Coruña. They offered also courses of Japanese and of many other languages, but I could only attend one because they were all at the same time. I had to choose between Chinese and Japanese and I eventually went for the Chinese course because I had learnt more Japanese by myself and I needed some guidance with Chinese. The course was very interesting and I learnt many new things. I was enjoying the language and the difficulties were only challenges. The next summer the same courses were offered again, so I signed up for the Japanese course without a doubt. Since I had been studying the language on my own for some time and the course was for beginners there were many things that I already knew, but I also learnt some other things that my non-organized self-study had missed. However, a few months later I had to make a very important decision. 2007 was the first year that Chinese and Japanese were offered in the official program of the language school, and once again, I could only attend one of them. The decision was difficult, but I chose Chinese because I found it more difficult to study on my own. That September I had to leave Japanese aside for a while.

I started to study in university the same year that I enrolled in the Chinese official course, so I didn’t have much time left to study Japanese as a hobby. But I kept on studying and that same year I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (better known as Noken) and I passed the level 4, which now would be a level 5 after they changed the system. I passed the test after study by myself, except for that summer course, so I was very optimistic about my skills.

I continued studying Chinese in the language school for three years, but after the first and the second year things started to get more and more difficult. I got very good grades in the first and second year, but the third year was also my third year in university and I had a lot of essays to write, a lot of classes, a lot of books to read, and a lot to study. So adding the homework and study of the Chinese lessons was too much. I started to miss some lessons when I had too much work on university and I realised that after missing just one lesson I was completely lost when I came back. One of my classmates helped me a lot by sending me the scanned notes she took in class and the new vocabulary that they were learning, (thank you, Fátima!) but even with her help Chinese was getting more and more difficult and was demanding a higher level of study and dedication that I wasn’t able to give it in that time. When we got at the end of the course and I had the final exams both in university and in the language school I was overwhelmed. I got to the point of crying out of frustration after the lessons because I was feeling that a boat was leaving without me. I did great in university because that was my priority, but I realised that even if I was able to pass the speaking, listening, and grammar parts of the Chinese exam, I wouldn’t pass the writing part, and I needed to pass all 4 parts to pass the course. So then came the next big and hard decision: I did not take the exam. I felt very frustrated because I had put so much effort and so many hours that it was hard to decide not to take the exam and waste all those years of study. Students had the opportunity to take the final exam again in September, but that year I got an Erasmus grant to spend one year studying in Finland, and I had to leave in August, so it wasn’t possible for me to take the exam in September. I remember that when I told my Chinese teacher that I wasn’t going to take the exam and explained to her the situation she understood it and told me: “But don’t quit studying Chinese!”. But I did.

When I moved to Finland I wanted to learn Finnish because I also love this language, so my priority during my stay there was to learn Finnish, so I had no time for Chinese or Japanese. And after my stay I finished my university studies and it was time to decide what I really wanted to do in the future and which steps I had to take to fulfill my dreams. After thinking about it I realised that if I continued studying Chinese or Japanese I would have to dedicate my life to them and the path related to that would imply living in China or Japan for a while to improve my language skills. Without living in Asia I would never be fluent in any of these languages, and I realised that my heart was in a different place. I realised that the path marked by the Asian languages was not what I wanted and that it didn’t make sense to keep making such a big effort in studying them if I was not going to actually “use” them or to need them. Actually, I was going to need a very fluent Finnish to follow my heart, and since this language also requires a complete dedication and I was going to use it and to need it, I decided to go for it.

We could say that Chinese and Japanese have been like a romantic disappointment for me, but I don’t think that I have wasted all the time I spent studying them, because even if I forgot many things and my skills are a bit rusty, everything you learn can be useful at some point and it all enriches your life. I’m probably more skilled when it comes to assimilate grammatical constructions and how languages work after having studied Chinese and Japanese, which by the way, are VERY different from one another. You can see a glimpse of these differences here. People used to ask me “But you study Japanese or Chinese?” “Both”. “But aren’t they all the same?” “No….”

So, that’s the story of my affair with Chinese and Japanese. I don’t consider it finished, though. I’m still fascinated by these languages, so I don’t rule out the possibility of keeping learning a bit more of them, even if just for fun.

The sound of music…. notes.

Something that surprises many Spanish-speaking people when in contact with anglophones is that the names of the music notes are different. This is because there are two systems of naming the notes. In several countries such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, Greece, or Russia, among others, the music notes are called Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Si. However, in England, Germany, Finland, Poland, Norway, Hungary and other countries the notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. I do not really know a lot about music, but I thought that this may be interesting to know to avoid misunderstandings, so I will comment a bit on the linguistic aspects of this, without deepening the musical issues.

clave de sol

The Do-Re-Mi system comes from Latin. This seems obvious when we notice that the system is used mainly in countries whose languages come from Latin. The origin is the hymn “Ut queant laxis”, dedicated to John the Baptist and written by Paul the Deacon in the VIII century. Guido D’Arezzo was who took the first syllable from each verse and formed the actual scale in the XI century. This is the Latin text:

Ut queant laxis

Resonare fibris

Mira gestorum

Famuli tuorum

Solve polluti

Labii reatum

Sancte Ioannes

It could be translated as: So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John. “Ut” was changed as “Do” in most countries, but in France the original form is still used. In some areas “Si” is changed by “Ti”.

As for the Anglo-Saxon system, it also comes from Latin, but from the alphabet. It is said that the philosopher Boethius took the first letters of the Latin alphabet to from the scale: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-K-L-M-N-O, but over the centuries it was changed to the present day “C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C”. In Germany “B” is sometimes changed by “H”.

On a curious note, in Chinese they use the Anglo-Saxon system, whereas in Japanese they use the Do-Re-Mi system, but adapted to their writing system. Here is the Chinese scale:

C谱号, D 谱号, E 谱号, F 谱号, G 谱号, A 谱号, B 谱号, C谱号.

And this is the Japanese scale:

ド 全音, レ 全音, ミ 半音, ファ 全音, ソ 全音, ラ 全音, シ 半音.

It is surprising to know how many people do not know that in other countries the music scale is different, so I hope that this entry will be helpful and that someone will learn something new.

Meatballs with or without meat?

Some days ago I overheard a conversation that really made me think about the origin of the word “meatball”. The conversation -or rather the argument– was about whether or not a meatball had to contain meat necessarily. Everything started when one of the participants of the discussion who was a vegan said that you can prepare vegan meatballs using tofu instead of meat, and another participant said that if it did not contain meat, it could not be called “meatball”. The conversation was in Spanish, so they were talking about “albóndigas”, which is the Spanish word for meatballs. They spent a long time arguing about this topic, and all I could think about was that in English the word implies that we are talking about “balls” of “meat”, so probably you should not call meatball a ball of tofu. But the Spanish word does not imply (at least at first sight) that you need meat to cook an “albóndiga”. So I decided to look for the etymology of the word and to compare if in other languages a meatball has to contain meat because the actual word implies the concept.


As we already know, in English we say “meatball”, which literally means “ball of meat”. However, the Spanish word is “albóndiga”, and as many other Spanish words starting with “al-” comes from Arabic. This is because the Arabs stayed in the South of Spain during almost 800 years and therefore, it is natural that some traces of their language have been assimilated into Spanish. “Al” was the definite article “the”, so many words in Spanish that start with “al-” come from when the Arabs used to call something using the article first, and the Spaniards made a noun putting together the Arabic article and noun. This is the case of the word “albóndiga”. “Búnduqa” was the Arabic word for “ball”, so they used to call meatballs “al-búnduqa” (the ball), and this was how we ended up saying “albóndiga” as a noun. As we can see, this Spanish word has no references to meat, it just means that the form of this product is that of a ball, so even if Arabs used to cook balls of meat, meat is not present in the etymology of the word. Thus, it would be logical to call “albóndiga” to a ball of tofu when speaking Spanish, because meat is not implicit in this term.

But, what about other languages?

 In German, meatballs are called “Fleischklößchen” which also means “balls of meat”, so they do imply the use of meat in them.

The same happens with the French name, which is “boulette de viande” and means, again, “balls of meat”. Other languages where we find the same meaning are: Dutch (“gehaktbal”), Finnish (“lihapulla”), and Swedish (“köttbulle”).

In Norwegian they call them “kjøttkake” which means “cake of meat”.

But in some other languages, as in Spanish, the terms used do not imply the use of meat. For example, in Polish meatballs are called “klops”, which apparently has nothing to do with the word for meat “mięso”. In Italian they say “polpetta”, and it is unclear whether it comes from the French word “paupière” (eyelid), or from “pulp”. The most interesting word for “meatball” that I found was the Cebuano “bolabola”. “Bola” means “ball” in Spanish, and Cebuano is spoken in the Philippines, where the Spanish language has a big influence. Therefore, it seems obvious that “bolabola” means “ballball”, comes from Spanish, and does not imply the presence of meat.

As a conclusion, the words for “meatball” imply the presence of meat in several languages, but in others they do not. The argument that I overheard could have been easily finished by using etymology, and the answer would be:

It depends on which language we are talking about, it is legitimate to call “albóndiga” a meatball made of tofu, but we cannot call it “köttbulle”, for example.

This is what I found in my little research about meatballs and languages, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did enjoy comparing these languages.

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