Not everybody speaks a hundred languages like St. Francis Xavier did, as his great hagiographer Fr. Garcia hyberbolically said. Therefore, missionaries usually have to learn languages. Some languages are “strange” or are supposedly too difficult or even impossible to learn. One of those is Mandarin. So that’s why I write this chronicle, about the five-millenia-old language of the Celestial Empire, which is the most widely spoken language on the globe.
I could say a lot about Chinese, but I will refer to only one aspect: its alleged great difficulty. The purpose of these lines is to show that Chinese is much less difficult than most people think. For many, “basic Chinese” is synonymous with everything very difficult.
In fact, there is often a fear of the Chinese language. However, I think this fear is quite irrational. While Chinese has some undeniable difficulties, it seems that excessive fear of this language is not sustainable on objective grounds, but is the product of the imagination, occasioned by the huge cultural gap between the West and the Far East.
Chinese is much less difficult than you think. I could justify this proposition leaning on strictly grammatical and linguistic arguments, and Fr. Pablo will do so in a future chronicle. I’ll just base it on something more subjective: my personal experience.
When the Superiors proposed that I come on mission to Taiwan, they told me that first I should take a “tone test”, i.e. a kind of examination of my musical ear. I was told that if I couldn’t pass this rough analysis, my dream of oriental adventure should be put away, “in aeternum”. The reason for such “pressure” was that Chinese has 5 tones, which in theory would require having a great ear . In fact, people always said I can’t even sing “Happy Birthday”. However, even if those who were in the choir come to the East with a certain advantage, is not essential to have a great ear to learn Chinese, nor is it a must to be younger than 30. The native teachers told me that Chinese can be learned at any age. In fact, another student in the class was over 70. End of comment. I’ll continue with the story.
So while my singing is awful, in the end they let me off the hook with the test since I told the superiors that some years ago a couple seminarians in the choir told me I had a good ear (as in, I could imitate a pitch well). The waiver was a relief, but peace was short-lived because when I got to Taiwan, the second day, someone told me if I did not learn the tones well, I’d better pack my bag and head back! And “a bag can be packed in ten minutes “, as my Master of Novices used to say… thus far the “fears” and “Taboos”. Now, I’ll tell you what actually happened …
At 13 days into the course of Chinese, I could already form some Chinese phrases and the Chinese praised my progress a lot. At 20 days, I started to learn to say Mass in Chinese. By one month, I was conversing in Chinese in the apostolate and a couple pagans listened happily as I explained that they could pray to the Virgin and she would help them. At a month and a half, I could celebrate the majority of a Mass in Chinese. After two months, I spent an hour and a half talking in Chinese without even looking at my book. At three months, I was going shopping and talking a lot with the faithful, teachers, catechism kids, and neighbors. At 4 months, I preached in Chinese and I started to write compositions in Chinese.
While I do not yet sing of victory, since I’m just getting started, my Chinese is progressing well, thanks be to God, thanks to the prayers of the Monastery and the encouragement of my Superior, urging me to be uninhibited (or “cheeky”) with regard to the use of Chinese — this “audacity” is a great help! This weekend and last, I celebrated Sunday Mass and preached in Chinese in three parishes for which the Institute is responsible. Everyone understood me. The sermons I made were based on the Catena Aurea, explaining the Gospel. For both the Gospel and the sermon, I did not use phonetic systems but read directly from Chinese characters, except for just a few that I still do not know well. Many parishioners praised my progress in Chinese.
I still have a long way to go — the other day, at a meeting of clergy, the papers seemed unintelligible. Indeed, there are five books and I’m just starting in on the third. Anyway, I’m writing, even some sermons. Thank God I have a teacher of Chinese literature that corrects me my writings and encourages me to write in Chinese.
We study two years of Chinese. But don’t imagine that they’re two years of silence or claustration. In my experience, somehow or other, I’ve been speaking Chinese basically since I came to these lands. As time goes by, I talk more and more. At first, only saying hello to people; now, I’m preaching them sermons, visiting them, and having several conversations. And they are not just small talk but often we get apostolates, like these: Father Pablo traveled to Hong Kong with the Legion, with him we had meetings with Taiwanese youth, had outings, pilgrimages, and apostolate at the Oratory. Sometimes people ask us to hear confessions, but even though we’re dying to, we’re not doing this yet. It will come.
In sum, at least in my case, Chinese is not only possible, it is a joyful experience, fruitful and exciting. Chinese is not impossible by any means. It’s very accessible!
We commend ourselves to your prayers that we learn Chinese as well as possible, so that we can help the souls of unbelievers come nearer to the Triune God, who wants to teach them what is most important; a teaching transmitted, not through letters or tones, but with through that ineffable and heavenly language that only the Holy Spirit knows how to use within each soul.
Missionary in the Far East
 Chinese is based on tones. The meaning of one and the same sound changes radically with a change in the pitch. The thing about the tones is no joke. If, for example, a preacher makes an error in the tones, he can–without meaning to–say insults in a sermon. The great majority of Chinese sounds don’t exist in Spanish and so you have to grow accustomed to new sounds, not only in one tone, but in five. Even all of the “romanizations” are only approximations (sometimes very distant), i.e., only attempts to write Chinese words with latin letters.