Posts Tagged ‘Mandarin Chinese study’

The mysteries of Mandarin

April 21, 2014

Shì māo!

I’ve been going through a bit of a wuxia phase lately, basically devouring any wuxia-based movies I can get my hands onto. Things such as the brilliant Dragon (or its Chinese release name – Wuxia), Reign of Assassin’s – which wasn’t too bad, and Young Detective Dee – which while not bad, was not as good as the original. Oh and the Grandmaster – which was – *awesome*.

Wuxia for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to Chinese martial arts. I won’t go into the exact meaning, as that’s a post unto itself, but look at it along the lines of wu = martial, xia = most translations sum it up as chivalry – but it’s more than that. It’s more of a loose translation into ‘doing the right thing.’ Think superheroes and their typical mentality.

Anyhow, I have been meaning to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for a long time. I think I’d only ever seen it the one time – the original time at the movies, where I loved it. How I have not seen this movie since its 2002 release is beyond me, however it was a very different experience this time around.

My appreciation and understanding of Chinese culture since originally viewing the movie have completely changed. And moreso, I now understand Mandarin to a certain degree. I take pleasure in watching Mandarin movies for the language recognition above all else, and to watch Crouching Tiger with a degree of understanding was a great experience.

Learning another language to me is so much more than just remembering all of these crazy new and foreign words. To me, it’s important to understand the mechanics of the language – and so it’s at this point in my language learning life, that I come across things that utterly boggle my mind.

Mandarin is known as an incredibly different language – and it’s true. However, not specifically for the reasons you might think. On one hand, the 4 tones are utterly alien to your every day English speaker – and the character based language also couldn’t be more different. But Mandarin as a language has considerably fewer words than English, and much of the language is simplified – think very basic grammar. Much of the language is implied – not spelled out word for word. The English language for your information, has upwards of a million words…a *million words*! In comparison, they say if you can master around 3000 of the most common Chinese characters, you can effectively read a newspaper.

Anyhow – it’s this simplistic sentence structure that often stumps me, and I found a perfect example in Crouching Tiger.

There’s a scene where Jen (Zhang Ziyi) is visited by her desert lover, Lo. Just after he leaves, one of Jen’s handmaids calls from outside the window, “Madam, I heard a noise, are you alright?” (or words to that effect).

Jen’s reply in Mandarin is: Méiyǒu, shì māo (没有,是猫)

Now in English, the sentence was, “Everything is fine, it was just a cat.”

The Chinese on the other hand: Meiyou = literally, ‘have not’, referring to there being no noise – there is no noise. Followed by ‘Shi (is) mao (cat).
So her literal response in Chinese was, “Is not (noise), is cat.”

Now that to me, is baby speak.

So much of Mandarin translates this way. I asked my former Chinese teacher about this and she said that its true, so much of the language is very simple, however it’s because most other things are implied – ie the have not referring specifically to the lack of sound, the ‘is cat’ referring to the reason for the noise.

Things like this don’t necessarily confound me when it comes to understanding the language, but I simply can’t imagine how it feels to speak fluent Chinese – from an English point of view. Oh god how i’d love to just magically develop the skill for even just a day, and listen to it with my current perspective – but alas, that’s foreign languages for you.

If you’re a fellow Mandarin learner, or even any language, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Studying Chinese destroys my head!

July 28, 2011

It’s been a reoccurring theme here that I have been lax with my language study. Almost every element of studying Mandarin makes me tired – even just thinking about it. I came close to re-enrolling in a Chinese class a month or two ago, but was at that point still on crutches, enjoying a broken foot.

So now I am still limping around, my foot slowly rehabilitating, I feel beyond tired in a new role at work. It’s funny how the train of excuses never stops. Oh I can’t afford it this month, oh I have too much on my plate at work, oh the temperature did not exceed 10 degrees this morning, blah blah blah!

I love language. It is a dream of mine to become not just conversational in another language, but close to fluent. I would like nothing more than to be able to travel to another country and converse with the locals in their own language – or hell, in my case, I could do that in my own town, considering Box Hill has so many Chinese living in it, its practically a Chinese province itself.

Why does language study have to be so difficult! Why can’t I just go to bed and wake up with a massive understanding? Because that is what we call fantasy, but I wish I wish I wish!

I was really quite hardcore into learning Chinese characters at one point. I was borderline addicted to a website called Skritter – which is simply amazing for practicing Chinese or Japanese characters. At one point I had around 100 under my belt and was progressing well. At that same time I also felt ridiculously tired…mentally tired. I actually felt like my brain was exhausted from working it too hard – a type of tiredness I can honestly say I haven’t encountered very often.

I think that learning Pinyin is the best way to enter into the Chinese world, and then supplement it with Character study. A lot of people say that learning Characters is an important way to understand the language as a whole and funnily enough they are right. I often found little comprehensions appearing all over the place as I studied the characters – particularly when you found the smaller parts of characters (called radicals) appearing in other characters. It slowly, logically brought things together – yet at the same time, I could never imagine myself ever actually looking at a wall of Chinese text – such as in a newspaper – and comprehending it. I could only imagine myself baby-reading it, one character at a time – where a month later, I would have finished the first page.

The other element to character study is that like the spoken language, the grammar is all over the place. The Chinese words do not follow the same structure as English – so much so that in order to understand even part of what is being said, you really need some colloquial knowledge.

I was listening in to a guy beside me on the train, yakking on in Mandarin on his mobile phone. Don’t you love people who sit amongst strangers on trains, happily crapping on about anything and everything? At least if you’re speaking another language, most people present will not have any idea of what you’re saying.  Well I guess I was culturally eavesdropping this guy and found it quite satisfying picking up different words.

I was understanding random things such as the word for Saturday, him answering in the affirmative, and a bunch of other tiny things that made no sense individually, but were satisfying to recognize nonetheless.

The point of this post is there is no point. Like my language study, it is a ramble. Hopefully next time I check in I can report on some advancement. I will say at least, that I am impressed with the amount of words I do actually know and remember. While I can barely string them together, and are not remotely conversational, some way, some how, I have retained practically every part of the language I have studied. My wife Courtney is similar – while she doesn’t think she knows it as well as I do, I am almost certain she has retained it all too. I only wonder if by pushing on and retaining, if that is the key to one day achieving fluency. It’s likely not the size of one’s memory, but one’s ability to commit to what has been a very tiresome path.


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