Okay, let’s tackle language. I’m sure you know Chinese to be one of the most complex languages in the world, having studied it for a few years, I can confirm your suspicions. I have only studied Chinese for about 5 years (all y’all Chinese experts can keep scrolling 😉) and it still remains a mystery and challenge.
For our convenience, some amazing person created something called Roman Pinyin, which is the romanized spelling of Chinese characters. You may not realize it, but you already know a few Pinyin words such as, Beijing, Shanghai, and kung fu. You’ll be set to travel in China if you can nail pronunciation because most of the street signs and even some menus have Pinyin on them.
Yabla has a fabulous Pinyin chart that will be invaluable for this learning process. The most amazing this about this chart is that it has audio attached. You can click on a word and hear how it is meant to be pronounced in all 4 tones
Speaking of tones, Mandarin Chinese employs 5 tones; they’re kind of like inflections. The fifth tone is a neutral or non-tone, so I’m not going to go over that here. The first four will suffice for our purposes.
Tones aren’t a completely foreign concept for English speakers. We come pretty close to using a first tone when we scream “yay” in excitement. Our voice naturally ascends, like a second tone, when we ask a question. Answering a question with “sure” often sounds like a third tone. Lastly, when we say “no” out of anger, it sounds like a fourth tone. The fourth tone is why many people think Chinese sounds like an angry language.
Even though my lips are saying “ma”, each tone I use will give the word a different meaning.
- Mā – high and even
- Má – ascend from low to high
- Mǎ – descend and ascend
- Mà – descend rapidly
Learning to recognize tones takes some time, but as you pay attention to the way their inflections change while they’re speaking, you’ll catch on.
A Few Resources:
Don’t Be Scared:
Chinese people are so nice. If you say “ni hao” to someone on the street they will instantly perk up and say a lot of really nice things (that you probably won’t understand). If you make even a little bit of effort to communicate they’ll be super impressed and tell you how hard Chinese is to learn and speak. I always like to see if I can get little kids to teach me a new word or phrase. After hearing me butcher it a couple times, my impromptu teachers will often say “don’t be shy, just try”. Words to live by!