Character Building

How about Easy Peasy Brain Surgery?
Before I came to China, I bought lots of books and other resources, in order to learn some Mandarin. After all, I had learned French and Latin at school, then Greek and Hebrew at university. Marrying a Russian lady meant trying to learn at least a little Russian, while buying a house and an apartment in Bulgaria has meant that I have even learned some Bulgarian phrases. “So Mandarin is not going to be too tough!” I thought. Yeah, well, we all make mistakes.

Mandarin is much, much harder for a westerner to learn than any of the other languages I have come across. There are just no points of contact, zilch similarities. If you know English, then German and French are not so difficult because there are so many German and French words that have found their way into English. Mandarin, however, is not like that. For a start, there are no singulars and plurals in Mandarin. You have to guess from the context. Then there are the tones. No, I am not talking about the delicate shades for your bedroom’s colour scheme. “Tones” means the different ways of saying the same word, so that it has different meanings. For example, the word Ma can mean four different things, depending on the tone, and only one of them is the lady who is married to your Dad. Furthermore, a word can even change its meaning (a sort of verbal chameleon) if it comes at the beginning, the middle or the end of the sentence. For example, Ma becomes a “question word” at the end of the sentence.
A metaphor for Mandarin?

Most languages have alphabets, but Mandarin does not. Instead, there are “characters”, little symbols or pictures that each have their own meaning. In order to read a Chinese newspaper, you need to know about 4,000 different characters and some experts have estimated that there may be as many as 40,000 separate written characters, although some of them are very rare and hardly ever used. Written Mandarin does look rather elegant, I must say, and the Chinese people have great respect for calligraphy, as writing in these weird and wonderful symbols is really an art form.

All of these problems mean that Mandarin is a horribly difficult language to learn, the linguistic equivalent of the Great Wall of China. Wanting to make things a bit easier for tongue-tied laowai (foreigners), the Chinese people invented something called Pinyin. This is Mandarin, but with English letters. Even though Pinyin is supposed to be really helpful, in reality it isn’t. Books are not printed in Pinyin. It is a bit like Esperanto, as it seemed to be such a good idea and it does actually not work. If you try to read a phrase in Pinyin to most Mandarin speakers, they probably will not understand what you are trying to say. If you go to Shanghai or Hong Kong, then they will not speak Mandarin anyway!

So what does a linguistically-challenged laowai do? Help is usually at hand, in the form of an English-speaking Chinese friend or an app on your mobile. In the supermarket, a little old lady will take your arm and try to help you, even though she does not know what it is that you want to buy. If you are a foreign teacher, then you will probably have your own Miss Yanee. The strange (and in many ways charming) thing is that the Chinese people are so patient, helpful and friendly to strangers in their country that not being able to speak Mandarin is rarely a problem. 

Yes, a few determined westerners really do manage to leap over this linguistic hurdle and somehow become fluent Mandarin speakers, even though they probably will still struggle with the written language. For them, learning the lingo must truly be a character-building exercise.      

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