November 07, 2013

The different sounds in Mandarin

About Chinese Characters and the sounds

All the different sounds

Sometimes the road feels a bit long...
The first thing to know about Chinese is that it is not a difficult language. It is rather easy. In theory... That said I am definitely struggling myself at the moment; I am so busy – and that is the irony of it all – to study Chinese that I don't have time to learn it. Because the real challenges in Chinese is the pronunciation and the ability to listen and hear – Chinese grammar is easy with very simple rules when you compare it to any of the European languages – more about that in a future post.

Even if Chinese isn't a very difficult language, theoretically, it is still not an easy language to learn, but there are a few things one need to be aware of, things that really makes a difference.

Every sound has a meaning
Yes, that is true, every sound has a meaning – but the problem is they don't just have one meaning, they have many. It is not until the sounds are put together with another sounds that they start to make sense and form words, or at least it is not until they are connected to the correct character that you can know what the sound you made actually means. To understand Chinese you need to either put many sounds together so they form sentences or you have to get the caracter that somes with the sound - or, if you are like me, you may need both, at least in the beginning.

You need to recognise characters
I can only underline the importance of learning to recognise the characters; Even if you aren't like me and very much connect language learning to something visual, even if you don't think you will ever write Chinese: You need to recognise characters. Most or at least many sounds have more than one character connected to them and unless you are able to recognise the character you can't be sure that you have the right meaning. There are at least 15 different "Xi" with the same pronunciation for example, one being "west" – 西, one being "news" 息, another being "dusk"夕 – and so on. Don't panic, you will hear them together with other sounds and it will start to become clear which xi that is meant, or at least that's what I am told, but still – if you are aware of it and if you can ask about the correct character half the battle is won, and if you find characters difficult, just think of them as identifiers in the beginning, just like you may meet many people in the world with the same name but different looks you will see many Chinese words that sound the same but look different.

Is it chicken meat or muscles?
Even if you don't want to read in Chinese – at least learn to recognise the characters; You don't even always have to be able to say them, but believe me, it is going to be very very useful to understand that "nan" and "nan" are different things (male - 男-or south - 南, to use two examples), and the only way to get it is by either understand the full contexts, or to at least be able, through characters, identify that they are two different "nan".

Sometimes it's not just one sound that is the same, two words with a very small difference in how you say them may mean different things, we had one of those examples in class; Jirou and jirou. One is muscle, the other one is chicken meat. Sure, there is a tiny difference in pronunciation; But the difference is so small that even if a person who is a native Chinese speaker will hear the difference, most foreigners will not, especially not the beginning, even if you ARE aware of it and can listen for it...

肌肉 and 雞肉 – jirou and jirou. The first one is the muscles, the second chicken meat. Ji in muscles is neutral tone, ji in chicken meat is first tone.

The Tones
One of the things every foreigner struggles with in the beginning is the fact that Chinese have different tones; Four different tones that are really five as there is one that is called a neutral tone as well. I will write more about the tones from a western perspective later, but for now; Just be aware that there is a difference, and that even if you chose the right word but get the tone wrong, people may not understand you. You have to study people's reactions when you talk to them, it is the best indicator. That does of course mean you have to go out and speak to people – the locals, not the other foreigners.

Patience. Patience. Listen listen listen listen!
Don't panic, if you pick the wrong one and you say something dirty, worst case people will laugh at you and you will never forget THAT one again at least; We westerners can get away with a lot just like a beginner of any language can, all over the world, they locals are happy that you are trying, at least in the beginning. Just understanding that the tones are there even if you can't tell the difference in the beginning makes a big difference. If you are not even aware of the tones it is different, then you can't even try and get better and that isn't useful.

Trust me, I have made many interesting mistakes speaking French or German for that matter, it is a part of being a beginner – you need to get out there and really use the language, it is the only way to learn; Theoretical learning will only get you so far; Almost all Taiwanese have studied English, just like all Germans and all French, but most don't speak it very well – they are simply not exposed to it enough - and it is probably even worse in some parts of Europe where so much is dubbed/translated, here at least you can hear the English soundtrack on TV.

You need to be exposed to Chinese, put yourself in situations where locals are talking chinese. It is the one thing I need to do myself as well; Go out and get exposed to the language. I just need to try and find the time to do so!

A tip on Tones
I actually very very recently found a good way of getting my head around sounds; There is no point in practising the Chinese tones on my own, when I am out walking or in my room, I don't have anyone here who can correct me and I end up practising the wrong thing and then have to relearn, which is far more difficult. The sounds I can practise - how to twist your tongue and so forth, as that is a matter of where to put your tongue, to hold your mouth open or closed, how to twist your tongues and so on. I just can't practise tones, not on my own - the best way and the only way is listening to and being around Taiwanese and Chinese people. But I realised that I can practise tones with words from the languages I already know; That way I can easily hear the difference - the sounds are already familiar to me - and because I know the other languages so well it doesn't impact my normal language, instead I can hear the same word and contemplate on the differences when I apply the Chinese tones to them. It works well, and I can't believe I didn't think of it before.

About mandarin and other Chinese languages

One thing that is important to remember that there are many different languages in China as well as in Taiwan. Don't make the mistake that people in the west sometimes STILL do, of thinking that there is only one language in China and Taiwan. Many Chinese people (as in people from mainland China) don't speak as mandarin as their first language, even if it is the official language in China, there are a lot of people that have another language as their native language It is the same in Taiwan. Mandarin is the official language but Taiwanese is a very important language here too, and there are many other big languages as well. These other languages may be completely different from what we in the western world like to call "Chinese" or mandarin. In Hong Kong, for example, Cantonese is the first language, and many people that I met in and from Hong Kong are telling me that they find mandarin difficult, the way many people in Europe don't speak English very well, even if it is their second language.

And yes, the other languages spoken in the region that we call China and Taiwan are definitely different from each other. One of my family members has mandarin as her first language, but her father also speaks Shanghainese, the language spoken in Shanghai, traditionally. My relative tells me that she cannot understand her father when the father speaks Shanghainese; It is definitely not just a dialect. Mandarin in Taiwan and Mandarin in mainland China are different dialects of the same language though; even if Taiwan uses the traditional Chinese characters while mainland China uses Simplified Chinese, the version that became the official version after the revolution. There are of course some differences, just like there are differences between British English and American English; Different pronunciation, sometimes different spelling, and also different use of words at times, but still the same language, the same way Swedish in Sweden and the Swedish in Finland, as spoken by the Finnish-Swedes there has some differences even if it is the same language.

Notice: One of the reasons I am in Taiwan is that I want to learn traditional characters, which is what they use here. In Mainland China the characters used are the simplified, this means there may be differences in my examples and the characters you see elsewhere. If you read traditional you can normally understand simplified as well; We just have more lines... Separate post to follow. 

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