The Language Barrier

As I’ve said, I’m working to learn Chinese.  Admittedly, I’m not working very hard… but I’m working.

I understand the 4 (technically 5) tones–even if I’m not very good at them.  That’s the most difficult part.  In English, we use tone to modify a word–make  it a statement, a question, an admonition, etc.  In Chinese, it completely changes the word.  Take, for example, the word “ba”.  It’s not just 1 word; it’s 4 completely different ones–one for each tone.

1 : ba – 8 (the number)
2 : bá – to pull
3 : bâ – a target [1]
4 : bà – dad

While most Chinese who deal with westerners are very forgiving about the tones, mistakes can be quite serious.  For example:  using the wrong tones can change “alpaca” to “fuck your mother”.  Getting the tones right is that important.

So…  I have a reasonably good grasp of the tones.  Pronunciation, on the other hand….

A little background on the Chinese language:  There isn’t one.

First of all, “Chinese” may refer to either of two completely different languages historically spoken in what we call “China”.  Those languages are Mandarin and Cantonese.  They’re about as similar as French and Polish (which could both be called the “European language”).

Mainland China primarily speaks Mandarin.   Except…. that’s not exactly true, either.  It would be more accurate to say that they speak the “Mandarin branch” of Chinese.  We think of China as a single, unified country.  That’s not true.  It’s more like the European Union — a collection of separate nations under one government.  And, just like the European Union, they speak a wide variety of languages.   There are, from what I understand, over 50 distinct dialects in China.  These aren’t just accents, they’re completely different versions of the language.

One  of the things that Mao’s government did was to “standardize” the language.   That’s “Mandarin”.  This doesn’t mean that everyone stopped speaking their regional dialect and started speaking Mandarin; it means that all  students  were required to learn Mandarin.  Essentially, everyone became bilingual.  The 60+ dialects are still spoken, but (almost) everyone also speaks “standard Chinese” (what we call “Mandarin”).  There is no one who speaks only Mandarin–it’s an artificial standard imposed on an entire country.

What does this have to do with me learning Chinese?  Well…. Kunshan is a city that attracts people from all over China because of it’s large industrial base.  Our students are from all over China, and grew up speaking a wide range of dialects.

So… Imagine you’re learning English.  The teachers are:

  • A Scotsman
  • An Irishman
  • A Cockney
  • An Aussie
  • A Cajun
  • And someone from the Bronx

…And they’re all trying to teach you how to speak like Dan Rather.

Then you’ll understand how 4 of us spent at least 5 minutes arguing about how to pronounce “sh”.[2]


[1] Turn the accent mark upside down so that it looks like a ‘v’

[2] You would be surprised at just how many ways there are.

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