One of the most common questions people ask me when they find out I that I currently reside in China is this: “So, can you already speak Chinese?”
The honest answer is NO, not by a long shot.
Well, sure I know some words, characters, and numbers. Also, I know enough to order a meal or go shopping and bargain with the shop keepers, but my knowledge is barely 1% of all there is to know about the Chinese language. (And by saying “Chinese”, I’m actually just referring to Mandarin. There are so many other local dialects/languages other than it.)
My workmate told me that even if a person studies a hundred years to learn Chinese, it will still not be enough to perfect it. After attempting to learn it, I can say that I totally agree.
The first thing I learned when I got a tutor to give me Chinese lessons is tones – 1. mā, 2. má, 3. mǎ, 4. mà, ma (neutral). If you have already attempted to learn Chinese at one point in your life, I bet you read that in a singsong voice, implementing the tones. Right?
Even though this was the first thing I learned about Mandarin, it remains to be the most challenging part of my Chinese education. You see, you have to get the tones right or people more often than not won’t understand what you mean. For example, in the Metro, the loudspeaker announcing the stops always pronounce my station ( 潭村, Tan2 Cun1) as “Tan4-Chun4” in its English version. That’s why during my first months here, no taxi driver could understand where I wanted to go because I kept repeating this wrong pronunciation. Only after I learned the tones did the cabbies get where I wanted to go.
Another challenging thing is that people here speak so fast! When they do so, it gets difficult to determine the tones so sometimes, even if I know the words, I cannot identify it when they start speaking. Many times, I encountered some people asking me questions that I thought I didn’t understand, but later on realized that I actually knew what they meant when my thought process finally caught up with the rush of words. Often, these realizations come too late, after I’ve already said, “Tīng bù dǒng”! Literally translated as “I hear you, but I don’t understand.”
Yet, probably the phrase I use most often is “Wǒ bú shì Zhōng Guó rén. Wǒ shì fēi lù bīn rén” (I am not Chinese. I am Filipino.) This is because almost all strangers I meet here (even foreigners) assume that I am Chinese or if I fail to say that I am Filipino, that I am Japanese/Korean. Can’t blame them. Come to think of it, I do look Chinese. For that, I have to thank my grandfather who was originally from Fujian Province.
At the moment, I have stopped studying Chinese (partly because my tutor got married and because lessons were expensive). This will surely not help my goal to at least learn enough to converse properly, but hopefully I will find some other way to learn it (if I am able to combat my laziness).
How about you? Have you ever attempted to learn Mandarin? Do you know other Chinese languages/dialects?