Learning Chinese II

source // wikipedia

source // wikipedia

Saturday, 16 May, 2015

Taipei, Taiwan

So, I’m still learning Chinese and it is still ridiculously difficult. A significant change since I started learning towards the end of last year is an adjustment of personnel. My original teacher suddenly disappeared due to personal reasons and I was left without worthy cover for weeks. Within this time a number of clueless substitutes started teaching me ‘b, p, m, f’ for hours on end – ABC in Chinese.

I’m no expert, that I know for certain, but I’m not five and it was not my first week, therefore, that situation became annoying pretty quickly. I naturally, as anybody would, went to the office with two big, intimidating looking guys, dressed in long black trench coats and calmly told them to ‘sort it out’. I had a new teacher the following week.

She seems alright, though her examples are a bit weird – she always talks to imaginary people at the door, but I understand the content; so whatever. I keep meaning, but forgetting, to bring in a picture of Confucius. I want to stick it onto the door and watch her explaining to China’s most famous ever teacher how to ask, ‘if the bookstore sells English books’ in Mandarin. I’ll explore that option again another day, I’m sure.

I’m under the assumption she already feels a little bit uncertain about me anyway, as I have somehow managed to convince her that I am at least forty-one years old. Imagine that. This is what a lack of concentration and a poor grasp of the Chinese language will do to you – apparently, if you are crap with a foreign dictionary it ages you fifteen years. Next week may be the first time in my life that I have needed I.D. to prove that I was younger.

I have recently started learning the Mandarin words for siblings and was asked to share basic information about my sister. She is twenty and therefore younger than myself, which I told my teacher. She wasn’t having any of it though, and apparently, at twenty, she clearly had years on me. Due to my baby resembling features, I wasn’t overly surprised by her assumption, but still wanted to right her wrong. We went back and forth for a bit, but concluded that the person in question is my sister, and therefore, I must be correct.

I later realised that I actually said forty and not twenty – rookie error! Hence why I now assume she thinks I’m in my forties, and most probably assumes I’m some kind of kind of a plastic surgery junkie. Two and four don’t even sound the same in Chinese, so Lord knows where my head was at. The word two translates to a harsh ‘er’ sound (a sound that can also mean ‘ear’ in the wrong tone), while four is a ‘suuu’ type noise (which can translate to ‘die’ when pronounced incorrectly).

To be fair, it is pretty easy to look barmy when new to Chinese. A simple counting game can come out as – one, ear, three, die, five – when not careful. How mental does that make you sound?

Another incident in which a lack of Chinese left me standing with custard on my face occurred in a 7/11 convenience store. I was fairly successfully ordering myself a black coffee, before a little boy decided it was time to make everything simple in the world disappear.

As I was standing at the till, performing like a well-taught Confucius, a kid came running into the shop, started tugging on my arm and greeting me with patchy English. Thankfully, it was just a student of mine and not a mugger – I therefore shared a high5 with the little rascal.

I couldn’t help but feel that he was a little bit lucky that I have chosen to study Mandarin in my spare time rather than taekwondo though, because who knows what trained reflexes could have done in a panicked situation. That said, if my development in taekwondo turned out to be anything like my progress in Chinese, I would have probably spun, slid, knocked a shelf and landed in a big pile of tampons.

Anyway, the clerk saw the student and reacted with gestures suggestion that she assumed he was my son. The kid is around seven – perhaps word got around that I was forty-one? I’m actually pretty close with another couple that had a seven-year-old when they were my age, but they were far more capable and mature than I am – plus, I’m told their kid turned out to be a superstar and blog writing sensation. So, congratulations to them!

As established my Mandarin is, at this point, basic at best. Therefore, left with a limited list of options, I decided to point at the kid and say, “big.” I believe this was my best attempt at insinuating that ‘he is too big to be mine’, I don’t think that was made clear to the shop assistant though. She looked at me puzzled, before going on to smile and clap at the boy – as if I was suggesting he was growing quickly and deserved praise for it. The coffee then seemed to take an hour to make as we both awkwardly stood giving glances and half smiles, all the while the kid was just completely oblivious to the mayhem he had just unleashed.

As I evaluated the mess that had just occurred on my walk back to work, I remembered that I know, and commonly use, the phrase ‘I don’t have’ in Chinese – which would have been a near to perfect response, all things considered. Oh well, you live and learn. I now go to the 7/11 at the other end of the street for my coffee.

I’ve talked a lot about the different strokes within the language causing confusion, and the importance of pronunciation. Well, the creators of Mandarin clearly decided that that wasn’t challenging enough, and started adding even more mayhem into the mix – just when you think the hard part is over, you turn to ‘Chapter Two: Measure Words’.

When talking about a selection of things, you say the number and then throw in a magical word before the noun – only the measure word seems to change every time. I have recently learned bookstore, book and newspaper – similar category, different magic sound.

Two jia bookstores.
Two ben books.
Two fen newspapers.

Or alternatively, how it is stored in my head…

Two why bookstores.
Two the books.
Two unnecessary meaningless extra words that make my head explode newspapers.

Imagine having to deal with one of these little pests for every new noun you learn. Come on, man. Give us a chance!

I thought that they over did it with the private schools in Taiwan, until I was made aware of measure words. Let’s be real, they probably don’t study enough!

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