Where I am living I need to learn at least a little language. Most languages that English–speakers learn are pretty similar to English. Chinese isn’t.
Well okay, there are some similarities. It’s pretty easy to adjust to Chinese sentences if you know English because the structure is much the same. Chinese is actually a simpler form because it doesn’t have determiners (a/the), there are no changes to verb endings (eg walk/walks/walked) and there are not really any tenses (will walk/walked/am walking etc). It’s like baby talk: “I go bed”. Tenses are shown by context: “Yesterday I go bed”. Easy! …But reading or writing, or speaking or listening to this language – that’s a whole other thing.
In Chinese writing each character represents one syllable (which is usually one word), so in this sense it’s quite simple. However – the lack of relationship between the sound and the character means that even if you speak fluently, the written world of Chinese is still completely hidden! The structure of Chinese characters is not built up of smaller parts like the letters of the Roman alphabet. This makes reading and writing very hard to learn. I have been learning Chinese with the use of Pinyin – this is the written Chinese that uses the Roman alphabet.
Reading Pinyin is not like reading English. All languages have rules about how letters are pronounced, and Pinyin does not follow the rules of English. Here‘s an example: How would you pronounce ‘zhi’? I think you’re wrong – want another go? Not even close. In Pinyin ‘zhi’ sounds exactly like the English letter ‘G’. However, this isn’t even a particularly difficult example, as at least a sound exists that we can relate it to! Several sounds in Chinese are unlike any in English. For example, you know where there are lots of x’s and q’s in Chinese names? It may look like crazy spelling, but these are actually pronounced similarly to ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ sounds. They say that after we age from babyhood, we lose the ability to even hear sounds that we were not yet exposed to. (This is why Japanese can’t pronounce ‘r’.) We’re stuffed then. But don’t give up yet – after a while I could hear a difference.
Vowel sounds in Pinyin are also pronounced differently to English. I used to always get confused between two different vowel sounds, and then I realised why. How would you say ‘bei’ in English if it were a new word you had read somewhere? ‘By’, right? And ‘bai’ would be pronounced like ‘bay’? Am I right? In Pinyin, these sounds are the complete opposite. Bei = Bay ; Bai = By. And that’s why ‘Beijing’ is pronounced the way it is.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for English speakers to understand in the Chinese language is the tones. There are 4 tones:
- Higher tone and does not change, like robotic language
- Like a question with the tone rising at the end
- The tone scoops down and then up, similar to how a posh person may answer the phone perhaps?
- Sounds aggressive with emphasis at the start of the sound
As I have mentioned before, Chinese tones go completely against how many people in the world understand language. I have spent hours listening to the TV, just to try to identify the tones. If you do not make the tone clear, or if you use the wrong tone, you will end up saying a word that is completely different from the one intended! I dread to think of the embarrassing consequences that could happen… 😉