zung1 gwok3 jan4 ge3 sing3 hai6 fong3 hai2 cin4 min6 ge3
Chinese names go surname first.
There it is ↑ . The most important sentence in the entire Cantonese language…slash…dialect.
But why? It’s so simpo! It’s so basic!
Yes. It is.
And that’s exactly the point. This sentence is:
- (Surprisingly) quite reusable, and
- Almost impossible to circumlocute succinctly and unambiguously
“Nonnative speakers usually don’t have a good sense of which kinds of words or phrases are the most useful or common. As a result, they (unintentionally) learn lots of uncommon words and never get around to learning basic words.” ~ Robert Nagle
If you’ve ever tried to speak a “remedial native language“ 1, after a certain intermediate point, you’ll find that it’s not the big things that trip you up. It’s the little things. It’s the small stuff. Prepositions. Tiny verbs for physical actions. Relative descriptions, demonstrative pronouns. You’ll find that you can read the newspaper, but you can’t explain how to tie your shoelaces or play ultimate frisbee or tag or hide-and-seek.
“But Khatzumoto,” you protest, “I’m not a pedophile; I don’t need to know how to play children’s playground games; this GPS ankle bracelet was just for a minor drug violation”.
It’s OK. I believe you. But…how do I put this:
- Your ability to explain new and/or complex ideas well, is predicated upon your ability to express simple ideas: Ironically, the newer or more complex an idea, the more it requires reference to simple, childlike, playground metaphors.
- A lot of the conversations we have in ordinary daily life (like asking which train route would be the best to take given certain conditions (price, time, occupancy etc.), or telling a funny story about a recent incident) can:
- be very complex structurally — nested referencing, multiple simultaneous actors, shifting of narrative perspective (external situation, inner monologue), and
- require the use of uncircumlocutable words — words that do not readily lend themselves to tidy circumlocution.
“Japanese people have no clue what is difficult for English speakers. Really, with just a lot of book study, I think anyone can learn grammatically correct Japanese by memorizing sentence patterns from textbooks. ‘Pub talking’ in a natural way — that’s the hard part.” ~ Cathryn Mataga
As long as you know the vocabulary, reading an academic paper, newspaper or physics textbook is actually really easy. Person and tense rarely change; most of the sentences are straightforward and declarative “X said Y”, “Q is R”, “A because B”; they are written from a single perspective (“impartial observer”) from which they almost never shift; variables are deliberately limited.
I submit to you that, unless you actively intervene and actively learn “simple” words, you’ll find yourself able to discuss anesthetic with your dentist (and its effect on your duodenum) before you can explain what that drunk guy was doing on the other side of the train.
Don’t assume you know it because it’s simple. Don’t assume you’ll have access to it because you know the individual words. It’s not just the combinations — it’s the permutations as well. Memorize that noise. Memorize those permutations. Memorize those strings. Use MCDs or some other high-redundancy method. Get them firmly into your head — into your active memory. Make them second nature.
Love the small stuff. Learn the small stuff. Mastery isn’t doing the big things well. Even monkeys fall from trees; even masters trip up on the big things. Mastery is doing the little things, the small things, the “easy” things — effortlessly, automatically, “perfectly”. Mastery is mastering the basics.
““One day I was trying to tell him this is how you button your shirt,” he said, switching into Cantonese. “But then I couldn’t say it in English, so I had to ring up a friend and ask.”” ~ A Chinese speaker
- (that’s what I call “foreign” languages…hehe) ↩