Chinese 101

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Learning Chinese is a fascinating endeavor. Especially if you consider banging your head against the wall thrilling. As you have probably heard, Mandarin is one of the hardest languages to learn. I like this statement, as it justifies my own Chinese language ineptitude.


One of the first problems in studying Mandarin is getting used to the pronunciation. Sure there is a “Buh” “Duh” and “Wuh” sound (hence the superfluity of words like bang, dang and wang), but there are also sounds that you thought verbally impossible.


The bulk of beginner Chinese language books have the word “fun” in the title: “Fun with Mandarin,” “Chinese Made Fun,” and the like. Evidently none of these authors actually know the definition. Fun: Adjective – “amusement and light-hearted pleasure” (none of which I ever experienced during Chinese language study).


I tackled this juxtaposition and, with the help of a pen name, wrote my own treatise: “Confusing Principles for Learning Chinese” by Un-Fun One. (If you are interested in an autographed copy, I still have some available, signed in blood from my forehead. For the abbreviated version, just see principles below).


Principle Number One: The significance of the lack of Chinese Alphabet Soup.


Literally. When you go to an Asian grocer, you will never find little cans of semolina characters. That is because Chinese has no true alphabet. Every character is a sight word. It has a sound, but without a hint as to how to pronounce it.


Now, your teacher will tell you differently.


“See this character?” she will query. “It means an infestation of vermin.”(Oh good, you think. I will use this quite frequently in daily conversation).


She continues,“You get a hint at its meaning by the left side of the character.” (At this point, you squint hard to view a stack of hatches and scratches which look more like a bonfire than said vermin.)


Having firmly established the large number of pests on the left side of the character, she moves on. “Yet here within this character,” (she points; you take the bait and lean forward), “You will notice that it has the picture of the character dang, which we learned yesterday.” (You scramble trying to remember which dang word you studied the day before).


“Since it has the nuance of dang, and since dang rhymes with wang, we know that this character is pronounced chang!” (And suddenly, for some mysterious reason, you begin humming the tune from “The Music Man”: Trouble. I’m talkin’ ’bout trouble, with a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool”.


Quite frankly, I never saw a “T” or “P” written anywhere within this tonal language system. Even if either occurred, they wouldn’t be pronounced with the twang my mother taught me anyway. Chinese don’t drawl, by the way. (Oh, and they don’t understand the humor of you doing so and then blaming it on being from South China. I know. I tried.)


Principle Number Two: Study the Star Trek Stammer.


This rule comes from the belief that in Chinese study you should expect your tongue to boldly curl as no tongue has curled before.


I kid you not, I spent the better part of three months of language study staring at my teacher’s tongue. Lao Shr would explain that in one sound, the tip of the tongue should be placed just at the back of the teeth. Then in another, the tongue should be slightly curled and resting behind those little ridge things on the top of your mouth. (Who ever realizes those are even there, unless of course, you cut them on a piece of crunchy pizza?!?)


I discovered that, in English, my tongue just runs amok within my mouth. I know this because my teacher told me so. She said I should talk with my mouth only slightly open so as to control my tongue. (Please note that talking while eating does not adhere to this rule, at which point spraying, spitting, and smacking are all quite culturally acceptable).


Principle Number Three: Language confidence is inversely proportional to language competence.


Let me illustrate:


Let’s say you have a husband (which I do).


Let’s say that at 10:45 one night, you asked said husband to go to the corner store since you were out of eggs for breakfast (which I did).


Let’s say said husband was in Chinese language school (which he was).


Let’s say on the way there said husband practiced what he would ask the store clerk (which he did).


Let’s say that said husband’s confidence in his language ability grew as he neared the store (which it did).


Let’s say that said husband wanted to impress his language teacher the next day with the amount of Chinese that he had used in said store (which he did).


Let’s say that said husband had a wonderful string of sentences practiced up by the time he arrived, in which he would politely address the young woman, apologize for the tardiness of the hour, and then ask if she still had eggs left. But, let’s say that said husband mixed up two critical words, both of which he had recently learned and instead found himself asking something like this (which unfortunately he did):


“Excuse me Miss. I know it is late and you are ready to close and go home. But I was just wondering if you are lonely?”


Let’s just say that we did not have eggs for said breakfast the next day (in fact, said husband said he would never go back into said store again.)


Yes, learning Chinese is a fascinating endeavor. And if you ever hire a business consultant/coach who has Mandarin language experience, it might be said husband. He is recognizable by the deep scars on his forehead.




Said husband in 1988. Wondering what he’d just said.