Learning Mandarin

July 8, 2009

For reasons best unexplained, I’ve started learning Mandarin.

So far its been a steady progress towards sounding as ridiculous as possible, twisting my tongue around the difficult pronunciation, and thanks to the shadowy influence of western imperialism on the content of audio lessons, having to learn phrases like ‘I’m an American.’

I’m really enjoying it otherwise, but the difficult part is attempting to construct sentences while thinking in English. A basic conversational sentence like ‘where would you like to eat?’ is simple enough, but having to make the grammatical and cognitive leap to say that in Mandarin, literally  ‘You would like to go to where place to eat?’ is proving a bit challenging. On the other hand, the mysteries of Chinese-English subtitles are finally beginning to make sense.

The other major challenge with Mandarin is that initially,  the language revolves not so much around phonetics, but tones. More than half the words I’ve learnt are subtle variations of the ‘shuh’ sound in Hindi, but they vary distinctly in the tone used to deliver them. A short, curt ‘shuh‘ with a falling tone is ‘Yes‘ (in certain contexts) while a longer, stretched out ‘shuh‘ in an even tone is ‘To Eat‘. Getting the two mixed up, while hilarious, may lead to avoidable complications.

To help me out, I’ve devised a system of notes to remember pronunciation. I’ve not gotten started on the script, which I presume is discerning with these differences, so I’m writing them down phonetically (with a liberal mix of Tamil, Hindi and English) in a three tier system stolen from those old ‘three-line’ English notebooks they thrust down our throats for handwriting practice.

The problem with that, of course, is that it looks like mathematical formulae.

This is literally '...eat a little' or ...eat some'. This is never used in isolation, of course.

This is literally '...eat a little' or ...eat some'. This is never used in isolation, of course.

That’s a rising tone on the second word ending with a half-tone of  a rolling ‘r’ that leads into the next word.

mandarin3The ‘rry’ sound is unique to Mandarin, and takes a bit of practice to get properly. The first word is written almost like a superscript, and is delivered in a consistent high tone, like hitting a harmonic note on a guitar.

mandarin2This is the Mandarin word for Mandarin, or literally: ‘the common language.’ The H in the middle section is half swallowed, hence its in a lower tone.

Conversational Mandarin, in flow, sounds incredible: its very musical, and with the tones taking precedent over phonetics, the way words are accented and emphasized work differently.

I’m only a couple of lessons in at this point: havent even got started on conjugations or advanced sentence construction yet. I can, however, claim to be American and ask if anyone wants to eat anything. It’s a very Eddie Izzard start to multi-lingualism, yes, but a start nonetheless.

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16 Responses to “Learning Mandarin”

  1. ingenious way to remember pronunciation!! Wow! It was the reason I was scared of Mandarin. I am curious to see how learning to write will happen.

    Blog some more, It’d be fun to see one learn Mandarin Eddie Izzard style! hehe

    S.

  2. KK said

    Unfair. We had five-line notebooks to practise our handwriting in…

  3. Marc said

    Bloody, why did you get a discount of two lines?

    Also, Mandarin… really now. If you don’t have any work, I’ll give you some .NET programming to do.

  4. Dear Sottai,

    Are you learning to read Simplified Chinese as well?

    Regards,

    PM

    • sottai said

      I will, I think.

      Not yet, though. For now I have about two months worth of conversational Mandarin (audio) lessons to plow through. Maybe after that.

      PS: I’m a huge fan of your blog!

  5. Ayeshea said

    You know I could have used your help here. SO many Chinese – no Mandarin…. I could have at least claimed to be American!

  6. krishashok said

    Nee khwei sho pothunkhwa ma?

    • sottai said

      为什么,我当然不!我发言lilting铃声,铃声在和谐的沐浴在耸人听闻的光采。但只有少数词组

  7. Google Translates that to

    “Why, I certainly do not! I rise to speak in lilting tones, ring tones in the harmony of the honorable bathed in the sensational. However, only a small number of phrases”

    Now I well and truly know how Chinese movie subtitles are written.

  8. sottai said

    That’s er… exactly what I wished to say.

  9. krishashok said

    Well. Finally, I found it
    Wo shi Yìndù guo ren. Wo bu shi Mei guo ren hai shi Zhong guo ren.
    Yeah.

  10. gauri said

    Very nice!! I’ve always been fascinated that it’s tonal and has no tense (and even gender, for the 3rd person? Not sure). “I eat today; I eat tomorrow; I eat yesterday.” Vaguely remember some 5 ‘ma’s in different tones too, to mean mom, horse, scold etc…(eww, almost Freudian, one would think).

    Something that’s always helped me learn/teach a new language: NEVER try to think English/native tongue in the middle. Go straight from the concept to the target lang. Unimaginable at first, but you’ll pick it up a lot faster. (Unless, like me you love the phrase “morning morning don’t turn my head” :P)

    That’s a sound notation (pardon the pun) system 🙂 If you’re into music, have you tried seeing the syllables on the respective k/b keys (or guitar frets)? Sounds absurd, I know, but you probably know what I’m trying to say.

    Good luck learning!! Really enjoyed this one 🙂

    g

    PS: If you expect me to apologize for a long comment, I expect you to apologize for an interesting post 😐

  11. […] Learning Mandarin I’ve often heard it said that spoken Mandarin is somewhat musical. Some would even go as far as saying that you don’t speak Mandarin, you sing it. I’m not sure I’d agree, but after reading this post, you just might. […]

  12. […] Learning Mandarin I’ve often heard it said that spoken Mandarin is somewhat musical. Some would even go as far as saying that you don’t speak Mandarin, you sing it. I’m not sure I’d agree, but after reading this post, you just might. […]

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