can anyone help me understand my fascination with zhong hua [china]? [part IIIa]

mastering mandarin, otherwise known as “enjoying the state of confusion on people’s faces as you stutter about meeting someone’s grasshopper. . .” [part A]

this is the chinese character for love.

“no, not yo. . . yo!”
“yes, very good! now say it again. . .”
“no, all wrong!”

the above is a real conversation i once had with my chinese friend named joyce. joyce lives in beijing, and we enjoy chatting on skype. i help her with her excellent english and she helps me with my awful mandarin. this particular dialogue came about as joyce was trying to get me to pronounce ‘peng you’ [the word for ‘friend’] properly.

i try to spend some time each day studying the mandarin dialect. it is a beautiful language, and i enjoy listening to chinese-language news shows just to hear the frenetic cadence of the newscasters as they report the day’s events. it is a challenging language for a person with a western ear, but when i catch a phrase that i understand i am thrilled. i frequently hear people complain about the sound of chinese people talking to each other. when you are not used to it, it can sound like a cacophonous noise, and can be irritating. but if you try to hear the tones that are used, you can begin to appreciate this graceful language that is incredibly ancient. being a tonal language, mandarin can be confusing because a word’s meaning is based on its tone. there are four tones in mandarin [not including the neutral tone]. the first tone is delivered in a high sing-song voice at a steady pitch. the 2nd tone starts in the middle-register and moves upwards. the third tone begins in the middle-register, then dips before rising fairly high. with this tone, there is often a break in the speaker’s voice as he or she dips the tone. the fourth tone is a short tone that begins high and moves downwards. it sounds somewhat similar to how you might yell a word like “no” at someone.

here is a good example of the challenge a student of mandarin faces. let’s take a simple word, ‘ma’.

depending on the tone, ‘ma’ can mean:
mom [1st tone]
leprosy [2nd tone]
ant [third tone]
grasshopper [fourth tone]
? [with the neutral tone, ‘ma’ is often put at the end of a sentence to indicate that it is a question]

you can imagine the potential for miscommunication if you accidentally called your mother a grasshopper [or a toad if you used a neutral tone]. in fact, there are a total of 23 meanings for what we would represent in pin-yin as ‘ma’. these words have their own symbols in chinese, but for the westerner it can be very confusing.

from time to time i encounter what, to me, is the ultimate inspiration: a westerner who is fluent in chinese. as i make my way around the vendors in chinatown [my favorite part of toronto naturally, and a short walk from home], i am always listening for the odd phrase that sounds familiar to me [though most chinese speakers in chinatown speak cantonese, a different dialect than mandarin]. but if i see, for example, a white person speaking fluently to a chinese person, i am completely fascinated. how did they learn to speak so well? was it hard for them? will i ever be fluent? it makes me want to spend all my time working on my tones and vocabulary.

unfortunately, despite my best intentions, i am often too shy to speak chinese to chinese people that i do not already know. and when i do, i tend to stutter terribly because i feel so self-conscious. the exception to this is when i am in the convenience store in the bottom of my condo. sean and may run the little store where you can get everything from toilet paper to bacon [if you don’t mind toronto convenience store prices]. as i walk in i always greet them with ‘zao shang hao!’ [good morning], or ‘wan shang hao!’ [good evening]. they always make a point of counting in mandarin when they give me my change, and give a friendly laugh and gentle correction when i say something wrong.

when i do manage to utter a phrase correctly, i feel like i have really achieved something. it is somewhat akin to nailing a tricky horn-passage in a symphony. as funny as it sounds, my favorite phrase is a simple question:

ni jiao shen me ming zi?

what is your name?. . .

and if you asked me that, my response would be, “wo jiao jc.”

i think you can figure it out.


~ by jcim on August 2, 2010.

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