This I Believe

Patricia - Minneapolis, Minnesota
Entered on July 3, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

It has become my mission in teaching to prove, beyond any unreasonable doubt, that anyone in this country can learn Mandarin Chinese.

I didn’t begin my Chinese language teaching career nearly twenty years ago with such a deliberate goal in mind; but I have met with so much skepticism over the years that I feel forever on the defense. Yes, the characters are difficult but there is rhyme and reason to the way they are written. No, the tones aren’t impossible to learn; we in fact can easily mimic the inflections because we have them in English.

Mandarin Chinese is a language of four tones. I’ll use the random syllable, “ma,” to illustrate. The first tone is like singing one sustained note: ma1. The second tone is a rising one that starts a little lower in pitch than the first: ma2, much like the response, in English, to something too incredulous to believe: “What?” The 3rd tone begins at the lowest point in one’s range and dips down and then up: ma3, much like the inflection I use in response to being misquoted by my children: “No… that’s not what I said.” The fourth tone is a falling one and begins where the first tone is produced: ma4, nearly identical to the more insistent negation in English: “No!” Unlike most other languages, if a word is pronounced in Chinese with the wrong tone, the resulting meaning could be completely unintended. For example, if you say a 3rd tone “liang” in“liang3kuai4,” instead of a 2nd tone, “liang2kuai4,” you will have said $2.00 instead of “the weather is cool.” One must be vigilant about tonal accuracy.

Most people are initially skeptical when I mention my profession; I’m not a shoe-in for a Chinese language teacher. Swedish perhaps. And therein lies the curiosity. “Chinese is so different. Isn’t it one of the hardest languages ever?” I don’t know about that; I do know that if studying Western languages enhances the richness of a native English speaker’s language abilities, learning an Asian language then must enrich in completely different ways.

When I first began studying Chinese in the early ‘80s, nobody I talked with cared too much about why I would want to study it. Now I field all sorts of eager questions, asking where Mandarin is spoken in the world besides China (Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia), about the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin (they are essentially the same written languages but have completely different pronunciations), and how on earth I could possibly remember all of those strokes to be able to write characters (I can’t always. Like anything, I have to keep at it.).

Most people know the 2008 Olympic Games are to be held in China’s capital city of Beijing. Many Americans pronounce the city like Bayjing or Bayzzhhhing. It’s actually a 3rd tone Bei, and a 1st tone jing: Bei3jing1. Try it next time. Of course anyone can do it.