Mandarin,Putonghua or Zhongwen – it’s all Chinese

“Oh, you’ll manage to learn Chinese easily living there.”

“You should be able to learn Chinese, you’ve learnt Welsh.”

“You’re good at languages, you should be able to pick up Chinese in no time.”

These encouraging comments from friends before I left for China, almost seven months ago, haunt me daily as I struggle to make  headway with the language. Admittedly, I haven’t been a dedicated student, so I don’t want to make too many excuses, but it’s hard! I have practised the phrase  “I am a volunteer” over and over again and then tried to use it. As yet, only one person has understood me, the rest just shake their heads even though I think my pronunciation is as perfect as I can make it. So it can be a little disheartening.

With an estimated 885 million Mandarin speakers in the world, why is it that that I’m struggling? The grammar is fairly simple compared to most languages – verbs don’t conjugate, there are no tenses or plural words and numbers are logical. As far as speaking is concerned, the sound is unlike any other language I know. When I look at or listen to French or Spanish, I can recognise several words before I start but Mandarin is tonal and that makes it difficult for Westerners. Many words sound the same but the tones give them a totally different meaning. It’s difficult for me to “hear” the different tones especially when people are speaking fast but without the right tone you might as well be speaking Zulu. Not many Chinese make allowances if you get the tones wrong, they simply don’t understand you or misunderstand you, which can be very embarrassing!

With other foreign languages in the West, the reinforcement of the spoken word comes through reading words. There is no opportunity to reinforce words here. Chinese has no alphabet, only characters. I’d love to learn how to write them but I think I’d need to be here for many more years before I got to that stage. Pinyin, a romanisation system, was adopted in 1958 in mainland China to teach children the sounds of the syllables. In the office, people type in pinyin on the computer which is then converted into Chinese characters. It is a language of pictographs with 90% of the words having a “meaning” element and a “sound” element. The character for “to sit” literally means: people on top of earth 人=person   土= earth which makes  坐  as the character for “to sit”. Man literally means: strength in a field  田= field   力= strength  which makes  男  as the character for “man”.  A well educated person knows around 6000 to 8000 characters and one would need 2000 to 3000 to read a paper. I asked my teacher the other day how she learnt to write when she was young.

“Oh, it’s the same way today,” she replied. “I would have to practise for homework every night from when I was very young. I would have three pages of squared paper to write my characters over and over again. I would have to learn about 30 new ones each week.”

So my progress has been pitifully slow and having a translator in work has made me lazy. Translation is another interesting topic.  I thought I’d be able to keep up with the office QQ messages (Chinese version of MSM) by using Google Translate, but even that service has limited use. This is a Google version of  one day’s conversation:

“Shoes busy got the hall, got under the kitchen, climb a high mountain involved won reservoirs, the system had yogurt weight into the capsule, but also as a weapon, threwRen …”

Little wonder that I’m not always up to speed with what’s going on!

Another amusing side to this business of language learning is Chinglish. Since 1982, English has been the main foreign language in education. There are about 300+ million English learners but I can’t say I’ve met many of them apart from those who’ve studied it at university. I have had a look at some of the English manuals and exam syllabuses though and it’s badly taught and very old fashioned. Hence, the English signs are rather delightful. There are some obvious reasons for this –  the verbs in Chinese don’t conjugate and there’s no definite article but there are also a cultural differences. The best way to show you what I mean is to show you some of my “sign collection”.

Can you imagine what a nightmare it is when I am without my translator?  Taxi drivers shout at me, presuming that I’m old (that’s true) and hard of hearing, in the hope that I’ll understand better. I delete text messages on my phone in Mandarin only to discover that they were letting me know I had run out of phone credit and I can’t read messages on my apartment door warning me that they’re going to cut off the water for a few days!

Now I realise my Mandarin won’t get much better in my remaining four months but I’ll try not to “lose face” over it . As I’m not thinking of returning straight away, it’ll be “long time no see” before I speak to you all again in English or Welsh.

For further amusing signs, follow this link.

  1. #1 by jelford on May 7, 2012 - 1:47 am

    I know how you feel Vanessa! I have been living in Ethiopia for 15 months now and I can still speak very few words! Oh well – ‘chigger yellam!’ (that basically means ‘don’t worry’ in Amharic!)

  2. #2 by Matthijs on May 7, 2012 - 10:06 am

    Well written! With limited time and resources you have still done a great job at learning Chinese. What should make you more proud is that you outrun students/big guys on a 6 hour uphill hike. Like many others, I as well struggle with Chinese yet I see the charm of it. Now, to be completely honest, I don’t WANT to speak Chinese fluently as 1) I do not need China and China certainly doesn’t need me 2) If I were to be fluent, I would be too much chinafied and my daily impression of being a stranger, the slight sense of adventure, or even the holiday-feeling would completely vanish…..I would feel like a citizen. To me, the lingual struggle is one of the elements I appreciate, yet when a conversation has been successful….. sense of accomplishment. Let it be 🙂

  3. #3 by kathrinaha on June 3, 2012 - 6:22 pm

    Haha, thanks for that funny post, loving it! Vanessa, I was meaning to write you for a while but could not find the time. I hope you’re doing well and still enjoying your time in Xi’an! All the best from Frankfurt. Katharina XXX

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