Updated Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ni Hao Ma?

On the long list of things that are my 'personal projects', learning Mandarin has been -- perhaps -- the most frustrating.

It's been a slow and not-altogether-steady process, with small bits of progress along the way.

If I had to try and nail it down, I'd say that trying to wrap my head around how the language works has been the most persistent stumbling block.

What goes where? How do I form a sentence? You know... grammar stuff -- well, besides my obvious lack of vocabulary (and complete inability to articulate proper 'tones').

Now, I'm sure I've heard it explained to me before, from a couple different people... but try as I might, it just doesn't click into place.

I've managed to get a few phrases down pat, a couple words and the base numbers... but I'm nowhere near conversation-ready.

Which really frustrates me because I actually have a tangible goal that I want to accomplish here:

I want to talk to my father-in-law.

See, he doesn't really speak much English, but I think he's a damn-cool guy. He's an amazing cook and sort of a techie in his own right. He's polite and kind and, heck, I really want to just sit down and... chat with him... y'know?

We've sort of worked out our niche together so far, mostly bits and pieces of English and a whole lot of hand signals.

But it's not enough, and it frustrates me on days like yesterday when I just feel that need to say "How the hell are ya, man? What's your life been like? What do you think about the world?"

I've heard that English is supposed to be the hardest language to learn, and maybe it is, but damn... Mandarin's no walk in the park either.

Thankfully, my wife's been a total champ about helping me through the wonderful world of 'tones' and special characters (x's sound like 'shi'). I drive her up the wall tho' because I can replicate the exact sound after she says it, but the moment I go to use it in a sentence, well... yeah... it turns to into a gore-fest as I proceed to massacre the language.

Still, I keep plugging away at it -- I'm working out a sort of lesson plan to try and implement over the next few months to see if I can get some base phrases down pat and maybe not sound like an utter dork.

Yeah, it's a process. A long, slow, agonizing process.

But I think it'll be worth it in the end.



For those interested, here's some basic Mandarin. Try and say them quickly (like 1/2 a second-ish).

Hello = Ni Hao (Say: Knee Haow)

How Are You? = Ni Hao Ma? (Knee Haow Mah?)

Thank You = Xie Xie (Shay-Shay)

Hot off the presses, my wife just sent this to me:


Elize Morgan said...

Problem with Mandarin is almost straightforward - it's a tonal language and as soon as you botch a tone the entire sentence falls down.

One thing that helped when I was learning it was using my hands. Arch my hand one way for the "up" tone, flat for no tone, high for the highest tone, and down for the downward moving tone.

It. Helped.

Rich Baldwin said...

I'm going to suggest something radical, but it worked for me:

If you're having problems understanding the grammar, don't worry about the tones quite yet. The sentence structure in Chinese is *rigid*, and a lot of the meaning of a sentence is based on which words can go where. So if you get the sentence structure wrong then it won't matter much if the tones are spot-on.

Fortunately the grammar isn't difficult - it's much like simplified English, since it's based on word order and preposition use. Just translate it through fake English, like this:

Ni hui bu hui?
You know not know?

Wo zhule zai Xiangang qigian jiu yuefen.
I live-past-tense in Hong-Kong for nine months.

Once you get the basic grammatic structures down, then you can focus all your energy on getting the tones down (which you will have to do if you want to say anything truly complex). But without the basic grammatic structures most people let the tones control their ability to speak, and then they don't have any sentences to use in order to get the tones right in a conversational environment.