I am very slowly learning Mandarin, having not devoted the 10-12 hours of week of study the instructor recommended on top of our five hours of class. Fortunately Pi Wen is an excellent tutor, although I strive not to make too many requests of her time.
One joy of the class has been the cultural touches. Last night we learned that the word for novel in simplified Mandarin is Xiaoshuo, or "little talk." According to the teacher, this is a sign of denigration--novels are not serious literature, much less impressive than the poem. "It's in the language," she noted.
As an English major whose favorite course in college consisted of reading the novels of Virginia Woolf, this was a sharp blow. Novels are the closest things I have to a sacred text (and, like all good sacred texts, part of the fun is talking about reading novels without usually doing so.) I love Woolf, I love Joyce, I love Bellow, I love Baldwin. I love Anne Tyler, in some ways the most of all. Little talk! An outrage!
It should be noted: this was just the teacher's interpretation. Other views are possible. But in any case it was good to be reminded of just how much culture is encoded in language. I remember being shocked at the concept of masculine and feminine nouns in Spanish, which bakes gender differences straight into the language. English, for all of its wackiness and exceptions to the rules, doesn't do that. And to us the novel is unique.