Sunday, October 24, 2010

Gentleman in Residence - Jess: At Least I Can Say Please and Thank You

See Jess' previous Gentleman in Residence posts here and here.

I've developed a new sympathy (or perhaps empathy) for immigrants who come to the U.S. and don't learn English. I used to be one of those people who disdainfully said, "Well, if you're going to move to a country you should at least learn the language." However, that was before I decided to move to a country that has one of the hardest languages for a westerner to learn.

There are many things that make Chinese really hard to learn. For one, it's a tonal language. There are four tones, indicated in pinyin by a line over the letter: rising (á), falling (à), flat (ā) and a final one that starts high, dips in the middle and then ends high again (ǎ). These accents, incidentally, can be used on any letter. The thing that makes this particularly challenging, however, is that the pronunciation of the word impacts the definition. For instance, the word da.
Dā: to hang over something
Dá: to answer
Dǎ: to hit
Dà: big

They're not subtle differences, are they? This system is necessary in Chinese because there are only about 400 syllables available, as opposed to 4,000 in English. Even that would be easily overcome, except that Chinese people seem to be incapable of using context to figure out what you're trying to say if you use the wrong tone. It's hard to even compare to English. The word "ma" can mean mother, horse or marijuana, depending on the tone. If I say, in English, "That's a pretty marijuana" when pointing at a horse, you're likely to think "I bet she meant horse, not marijuana." You'd correct me and we'd go on. But the Chinese don't do that. They just say, over and over, "What? Marijuana?" as you attempt to cycle through the tones. At some point you hit the right tone for horse and they all nod, delighted that you put together a coherent sentence.

The system of using the Western alphabet to transcribe Chinese characters is called pinyin, and it's hard enough to learn that I'm not even focusing on characters while I'm here. There are 26 letters, the same as in English, but there are two different Us, and six combinations of letters that nearly all sound completely identical to me. These include zhi (which supposedly sounds like if you say 'g' and then clench your teeth together and make a 'zh' sound), shi ('s' as in shhh, then an 'ew'), zi (put your tongue behind your top front teeth, then try to say 'z', then add an 'ish' on the end) (no, I'm not joking. I made one of the other teachers say this one 11 times before I could even approximate the sound) and si ('s' as in the noise a snake makes, then add a 'zuh' to the end.)

Chinese is hard enough to me to learn that it doesn't take a lot of negative reinforcement to make me think that it's not worth my time to learn it at all. For instance, even though the expat community in Nanjing is nearly insignificant compared to Beijing or Shanghai, the machines in the metro station have English options. All the restaurants give you menus with pictures.

All in all, I have the feeling I'm going to leave China with very nearly the same vocabulary I came here with, which is to say: none at all.

1 comment:

Kris said...

I had a roommate who was Cantonese. When she would talk to her mother she had to be very careful. I guess there are multiple ways to pronounce "ma" and one of them is "Mother" and another is our equivalent of "bitch." Just an inflection up or down could be an insult. This makes me very glad I do not speak a tonal derived language.
Hugs to you oh so far away.