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Seven Billion People to Speak to – Choose One

November 3, 2011

This Sunday, somewhere on this tiny little speck of dust we call home, the child was born that pushed our total population as a species over the seven billion mark.  Seven  billion people.  That, for those without a calculator handy, is a lot.  Now whenever the media uses big numbers like this it generally feels the need to include idiotic, patronising analogies to help us simpletons understand what a huge number this is.  Here are some of the best / daftest I could find:

If you were to count from 0 to seven billion, it would take you 200 years

If you took seven billion steps around the equator, you could walk around the earth 106 times.  (If you had some kind of water-shoe-floating apparatus.  Obviously.)

If you stacked every person in the world on top of each other head to toe, you could reach a point in space 27 times further away than the moon. (Why didn’t anyone tell this to Kennedy and save the USA & Russia a lot of money and bother)

And this is far and away the most absurd one I have found:

Suppose an average thimble holds 2 millimeters of water.  Seven billion of those thimbles would fill at least five Olympic swimming pools.

What?  Really?  For the love of God, why?  Honestly, someone actually took the time to work that out.  Which is nearly as absurd as pretending for a minute (that’s seven billion seven billionths of a second) that you could even begin to predict when the seventh billion child will be born to a day’s accuracy, or even a month (that’s one billionth of a billion months).  You can’t, of course.  But it makes a good press release.

The seven billionth person on this earth is no more significant that the 6,999,999th or, indeed, the 7,000,001st.  What is impressive, though, is that one fifth of all these people live in one country – China.  China, soon to be the largest economy in the world, holder of all the worlds’ debt, me, and the largest English speaking nation on earth.

This comes as scant comfort to me, in the far West of the country, where few foreigners dare to tread, and people don’t even speak standard Chinese, let alone English.  Nope, I am very much on my own here and met with many a blank look or, worse, dismissive wave of a hand as I try the time-honoured British technique of SPEAKING LOUDLY AND CLEARLY.

I can’t judge though, not really.  I mean, it’s not as if I can understand a word of Chinese, is it?  I mean I’ve tried, I’m trying.  I’ve got my podcasts, my phrase book, we are getting language lessons but still I can just about stutter the days of the week, numbers and ‘where is the bathroom’.

The problem, other than the fact that the Tai Chi tournament meant I missed a good month of my Chinese lessons (not like those Spanish swots at the back of the class, who keep chuckling knowingly at the Chinese jokes the teacher makes as I stare incomprehensively, or say ‘ah’ in smug realisation as she makes another completely indecipherable and, as far as I can tell, random mark on the board), is that Chinese is a completely new language system.  It’s not like learning a European language, which has the same roots as English, and more sharing of grammar and vocabulary than car keys at a swingers party.

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My Chinese homework – which I cannot do.

No, Chinese evolved completely separately and follows a completely different logic.  To start with the written language is not made of an alphabet; each word is made up of a pictogram and a character whose lines and shape depict the phonetics of the word; the only way to learn is to memorise these characters, of which I’m told you can get by conversationally with a modest two thousand.  Might as well be seven billion as far as I can tell at the moment.

Secondly, the words in Chinese are all tonal.  In English we use tone to indicate expression, to add emotional meaning to the words we say – but not to change the literal meaning itself.  Not so in Chinese, where – depending on how the word rises and falls in tone – the word ‘Ma’ can mean mother, scald, hemp or… horse.  Not only this, but these tones can change in tone depending where they are in context to other tonal words.

Put these together and combine them with a talking speed for the average person of something like seven billion words per minute, and you are left with a perfect storm of incomprehensibility.  Right now achieving a conversational level of Chinese looks more unachievable than gaining the forgiveness of a mother in law you have just referred to as ‘horse’.

There is some good news though – the grammar is simple, direct and contains no articles like ‘the’, ‘an’ or ‘to’ so once the tonal code is cracked, and I can persuade those I speak to to take the occasional breath, there may be hope.  Then, statistically, I will be able to communicate with well over half of the world’s population.  And that will be cool.

Until then, kan gu zhege chang di – watch this space (I think).

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