Friday, January 26, 2007

Bo - Po - Mo - Fo

I hate to feel dumb and helpless, but that is exactly how I felt in the mainland when I would:

  • Have the hotel write in Chinese Characters where I wanted to go and take on faith that I would get there.
  • Point to things I wanted to eat, or point to the chinese characters conveniently printed in my lonely planet guidebook
  • Play charades with random people by pantomiming airport by sticking out my arms in the form of wings, eating by pointing to my mouth, or bathroom by pointing to . . . well you get the idea.

Not content to repeat these events on my next foray to the Mainland, I've started taking Mandarin classes both here on campus on Tuesdays (when the travel schedule permits) and on Fridays at a private language school with a couple of other students.

Not only do I want to learn the language, but also learn the answers to such mysteries as:

  • When a Chinese speaker sees a new character how do they attempt to sound it out? Ans: by asking somebody or looking in a dictionary. . . which begs the question
  • How do you alphabetize things in a language without an alphabet so that you can look things up? Ans: You sort by the number of strokes.
  • How do you communicate time in a language with no tenses? Ans: You say I go yesterday
  • When translating English names into chinese, the chinese will often use chinese characters that sound similar to the English sounds just like we translate chinese names into things like Tsim Sha Tsui. . . However, given that each character represents a word, does that lead to some interesting translations (i.e. does Chi-ca-go translate to old smelly feet in Chinese)? Ans: They didn't understand the question.

Now yes, I realize that they speak Cantonese here in HK, but there are more Mandarin speakers in the world and I'll get a bigger ROI. Plus, given that I studied in Barcelona (where they speak Catalan natively) to learn Spanish, I figured I should continue the trend of studying foreign languages in inappropriate(notnative speaking) places. If English wasn't my native language I'd go to Montreal to learn English to complete the trifecta.

Anyways, I have good teachers, but any hopes of feeling smarter evaporated during the first class' phonics lessons. . . Repeating sounds over and over just makes you feel like a stupid child. Especially when the teacher goes "not SHI its ZCHI!" and I can't tell the difference or even repeat the sound coming out of her mouth. The feeling of regressing back to childhood was complete when I had to supress a giggle when we repeated the intial (consonant) sounds of Bo - Po - Mo - Fo (hee hee Mo - Fo!)

Added complexity ensues when you add in the tones. For those of you who don't know, Chinese is a tonal language and sound/word can have drastically different meanings depending on which tone (flat, falling, rising, or falling and rising) the word is spoken with. A lot of these homophones make you stop and go, how in the hell did these concepts get associated together. For example:

  • Ma can mean: Mother, Horse, or be a question word
  • Ai can mean: Love or cancer
  • Si can mean: Death or Four.

Given my tone deafness (all of you who saw Follies know what I mean), this language is going to be hard. . . I know I'm going to say something like your horse has cancer and completely confuse the hell out of the listener.

Well, after the first week I can now say Ni Hao (Hello), Zaoshang Hao (Good Morning), Xie Xie (Thank You). Unfortunatley, given the complexity of the language this is probably about as far as I'm going to get.

That's not true, I can also say "Shi Mei Guo Ren" (I am an American), but learning that was a waste of time. I was already able to communicate that concept very easily without language class.


Josekin said...

Just curious, wouldn't you want to learn how to say "I am Spanish" to deter hecklers? Or learn "don't bother me because Chairman Mao won't like it".

shmoo said...

Interesting, "ma" also means "mother" is English.

And it's a question word in Hebrew!

Adam and Eve spoke only one language! We're all related!

Anonymous said...

Chinese characters are not just a combination of strokes. There are 200+ of 'radicals' which are sometimes an individual character on its own while can be part of another character as well. After you've learnt several hundreds of the basic Chinese characters, you may look at these radicals for a clue to the pronunciation/meaning of a new character. It's tricky though, coz there is no clearly defined rule. I guess the best way is looking up in the dictionary.

Gook luck with your study.

- R2

Howard said...

Individual Chinese characters are like Latin roots in English -- they connote but don't necessarily denote. E.g: "Chicago" may connote "Sesame Additive Brother", but a reader will quickly recognize it as a foreign name. Indeed, Chinese prose is terse, much like Latin -- perfect for mottos and haikus ;)