Wǒ Xuéxí Hànyǔ

While I'm living here in China, I've been taking the opportunity to try to learn Mandarin Chinese. It really isn't necessary for living here, since I'm at a foreign language school and there are plenty of students who want to practice their English and help you out, but I figure it'd be a waste to live here and not learn Chinese at least a little.

Since this is a foreign language college, they offer Chinese language class for the foreign students (mostly Russian and Korean) who come here to learn Chinese. I go to these classes on the days I don't teach (Monday and Thursday). It's a great environment to learn Chinese in because usually there are only 3 students, counting me, although sometimes there are as many as 5 if some of the other foreign teachers come to class. Unfortunately, I don't usually feel motivated to study outside of class, so I tend to forget a lot of what I learn in class every week. Most weeks I have a student come tutor me for an hour or so, so I get that, at least. And the classes I go to add up to about 6 hours per week, so I'm still learning a lot.

Chinese is quite difficult to learn. Here's an overview of some of the more difficult parts:
  1. The pronunciation. In addition to the regular character written system, Chinese has a latinized alphabet known as pinyin. Since it's a recent (20th Century) creation, it was created to be completely phonetic and hasn't evolved funky spellings like English has. However, there are a number of sounds that are difficult:
  • R: The pinyin 'r' is this weird sound that is somewhere between an English 'j' and an English 'r'. That probably sounds odd, since 'j' and 'r' aren't anything like each other in English, but that's how it is. Or maybe it's more like both of them at the same time. Regardless, I can't say it anywhere close to correctly, and I've given up trying. I just say it as an 'r' and don't bother with trying to fit the 'j' sound in there.
  • Zh and J: In pinyin, both 'zh' and 'j' are an English 'j' sound, but they are slightly different 'j' sounds. For the longest time, I couldn't tell any difference. I hear a little bit of a difference now, and can sometimes make a difference when I say it, but I'm still never completely sure.
  • Ch and Q: Like 'j' and 'zh', both of these are an English 'ch' sound, but are slightly different, and very difficult to tell apart.
  • X: This is somewhere between English 's' and 'sh'. It was difficult at first, but I've gotten better at it.
  • Ü: It's a little like a regular "u", but different, and it was very difficult at first. You kind of have to pucker your lips up like a fish to say this right.
  • The Tones. Chinese is a tonal language, which means that in addition to the raw pronunciation, each syllable also has one of 4 tones (or the neutral tone). The tones are notated using accent marks. The same word spoken with different tones will have a completely different meaning, so it's very important to say/hear the tones correctly. Some of the time you may be able to guess which tone (and hence, which meaning) is intended by the context, but a lot of the time, this won't work. For example, "hànyǔ" is Chinese and "hányǔ" is Korean. So if someone says "Wǒ xuéxí hànyǔ" ("I am studying Chinese"), it's important that you hear the tone correctly. You have no way of knowing if they're saying "I am studying Chinese" or "I am studying Korean" unless you're able to discern the tone. Anyhow, here are the tones:
    • 1st tone (i.e. ā): The same pitch is used throughout the entire syllable.
    • 2nd tone (i.e. á): The pitch rises during the syllable.
    • 3rd tone (i.e. ǎ): The pitch drops slightly, then rises during the syllable.
    • 4th tone (i.e. à): The pitch drops during the syllable.
    • Neutral tone (i.e. a): A syllable with a neutral tone is pronounced lighter and shorter, and the pitch doesn't have any rising or falling motion.
  • The Characters. Pinyin is usually only used to help students learn Chinese but is never used to write Chinese (I've been told that pinyin is even used in Chinese schools to help Chinese students learn the language. So it's not just for foreigners). Chinese is always written using characters. One article I read mentioned that one major dictionary has about 86,000 characters. They're really isn't any way to guess the pronunciation or meaning of a character just by looking at it, although the characters often share common elements (called radicals) that aid in memorization. Luckily, you only have to memorize about 2,000-3,000 characters to be able to read the newspaper. I'm at about 50 or so, so I've got a long way to go.
  • Anyhow, here are some simple Chinese phrases, with the characters, pinyin and English meaning:
    • 你好。 = Nǐ hǎo = Hello. (Literally, this means "You good.")
    • 你好吗?= Nǐ hǎo ma? = How are you?
    • 谢谢。 = Xiè xie = Thank you.
    • 再见。 = Zài jiàn = Good bye. (Literally, this means "See you again.")
    • 那个多少钱?= Nàge duōshǎo qián? = How much does that cost?
    • 我是美国人。Wǒ shì měiguórén. = I am American.
    And just for fun, here's a Chinese tongue twister, in characters, pinyin and English:
    • 四是四,十是十, 十四是十四, 四十是四十。
    • Sì shì sì, shí shì shí, shísì shì shísì, sìshí shì sìshí.
    • 4 is 4, 10 is 10, 14 is 14, 40 is 40.
    • (This stops at 40, but it could continue at "44 is 44"... sìshísì shì sìshísì).
    By the way, this post took quite a while to write. If you actually care about stuff like this and want me to post more about Chinese, then please leave a comment. I doubt I'll make the effort to write something like this again if no one really cares to read this.
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    Husband and father, musician, software engineer at SEOmoz, open source developer specializing in Ruby and Rails, world traveler and Christian.