Right now our house is in a constant state of chaos. We just booked one-way plane tickets. We are really moving to China. It is finally starting to sink in. The whole world has gone mad. To top it all off, we are trying to learn one of the most difficult languages in existence: mandarin.
Not long after we accepted our international assignment we started taking mandarin lessons twice a week. We are fortunate that our company offered us the option of unlimited tutor lessons both in the US and once we move to China. We hope to make the most of it, but with the move ~5 weeks away, it is getting more difficult to keep up with everything! I will therefore take this opportunity to give you a little insight on our experience thus far in the hopes that it might jog my memory and force me to study a little.
Thus far, we are finding the learning process to be a little different than previous languages we learned. I started learning Spanish at the ripe old age of 5 in a Spanish immersion kindergarten class, and continued all the way through high school. I learned quite a lot in that time and would have loved to have used it more than on a mission trip I went on in a Spanish community and a trip to Puerto Rico. I have still not been to Mexico or Spain, and at this point the “use it or lose it” phenomenon has come into play more than I care to admit. David, on the other hand, took German all through high school and even a year or two in college. He also took a trip to Germany and got to practice speaking German, but alas, he too has lost a lot of what he learned. Then there is our new adventure with Mandarin…
The most noticeable difference for me in learning this language has been the lack of phonetic clues in the traditional written language. Chinese does not use a traditional roman alphabet, they instead use characters to represent different words. Back in the 1950s a phonetic version of mandarin was created called “Pinyin” which was used to help elevate the extremely high illiteracy rate at the time. (For those who are interested I found an interesting article on the evolution of Pinyin here.) While Pinyin is not perfect, it makes mandarin much more accessible to foreigners and has been one of the only reasons we did not immediately give up upon undertaking this task. Below I will highlight a few of the things I have found most interesting or confusing while learning mandarin. I have a long way to go I’m afraid.
First: the letters of the pinyin alphabet are slightly different than that of English and are pronounced even more different in some cases. For example: “zh,” “ch,” and “sh” are letters, and to really throw you off “c” is pronounced (ts) and “j” is pronounced (dy) to name a few. The consonant that still throws me off on occasion is q (pronounced ty or ch depending on which book you read) and the vowels “i” and “e” are incredibly inconsistent depending on the word making the sounds ee and eh respectively. Unless that “i” is preceded by z, c, s, zh, ch, or sh…then it is pronounced like the letter r. Naturally. There’s also an implied umlaut over the u in many words, which David loves because that was his biggest struggle in German.
Have I completely lost you yet? No? Good, we’ll continue.
Second: I’m learning to speak before I can understand the spoken or written dialect. In Spanish I learned to listen and read a word before I could start putting sentences together. I can still read written Spanish quite well (I just received a letter in the mail TODAY urging me to “Abrir inmediatamente” because the letter was IMPORTANTE) and understand most of what’s going on in a classic univision soap opera, but understanding spoken mandarin at a normal speed and reading the characters remains very difficult. Our tutor slows everything down for us, so sometimes I can catch what she’s saying, but reading and understanding the hieroglyphics that are the Chinese characters is nearly impossible. Instead I have focused on learning essential phrases to start with in the hope that eventually it will all start to sound more familiar and I will be able to accelerate my learning and understanding.
Where is the bathroom? Cèsuǒ zài nǎlǐ
I would like a cold beer. Wǒ xiǎng bīngzhèn píjiǔ
Third: There are no plural words, or verb tenses, or filler words/articles like we use in English all the time. There are “question words” like who/what/which/where/how that indicate you are asking a question, and when those aren’t used the word ma is used at the end of a sentence. Therefore, there is no such thing as a direct translation. I remember learning a similar lesson in Spanish, once you start to actually think in another language is when you finally start to understand it better…but that takes time.
Fourth: Tones. How have I gotten this far into this post without mentioning the four different tones?! (I am avoiding packing and other useful activities, that’s how). There are four major tones which can immensely change the meaning of a word. First tone is flat (and usually high pitched), second tone rises in pitch (like when you ask a question), third tone goes down and back up (like there are two syllables with changing pitch), and forth tone goes down (like a short statement or command). Then there’s the neutral tone which is like normal speech. So the same word can have 4 or 5 different meanings, all depending on the tone you use! How perfectly confusing! Let’s look at the word ma for fun. Ma with the first tone means mom while ma with the third tone means horse. They both have very different characters, so reading them it would be more obvious that they were different. When talking to a shopkeeper about buying something for your mother though, you have to be a little more careful lest they think you have a very special horse (this happened to a colleague). To make matters worse there are words with the same spelling, same tone, and even same character that mean different things. Dian, for example, with the third tone can mean to order something or o’clock (as in time of day). With these words you must use context to determine if someone wants to order something or if they are telling you the time (with my luck I’ll end up telling someone it’s fish o’clock or something). Anyway, I highly recommend looking up a youtube video of the four tones to start your new mandarin lessons.
Fifth: Resources. What has worked best for us so far for learning are two different intro to Chinese/mandarin lesson books (with audio CDs) and interactive phone learning games. These help outline some of the more common and necessary phrases to start with. As for actual communication, we have found WeChat and google translate pretty useful so far. WeChat is a popular internet text messaging app in China with lots of other features I have not even begun to understand (you can buy movie tickets with it apparently). Google translate can not only translate written English to Chinese characters, but it will also speak it for you if you want. Since China is on a mission of blocking all things google from their internet, I am not sure how well this will work with our new Chinese smart phones though. I’m also undertaking the seemingly impossible task of learning to read and write simplified Chinese characters. I’m up to 39/20,000. If I can learn a few hundred though, I will feel pretty accomplished I think. I found some pretty neat flashcards though that show the correct stroke order for drawing each of the characters and come with a few examples of how the word is used (in pinyin and characters).
I could go on with all the other things we have managed to learn so far, but I am nowhere near an expert at this and can only provide random insight on my experience so far. I have a feeling this is going to make for some pretty entertaining stories one day.
Side note: great success, this post forced me to study a bit in the process!