‘Imagine that you are on life support’, our lăoshī (teacher) at National Taiwan University (NTU) begins, a petit and fiery bespectacled woman in her early thirties, who immediately grabs the class’s attention with her alarming announcement. ‘And your heart stops. The ”beeeep“ sound of the heart monitor is very similar to the elongated, high-pitched first tone in Mandarin. Repeat after me… ’ My crash course in the musical nature of Chinese is at first lighthearted and jovial; the noises I make in the classroom are usually reserved for my Kate Bush impersonations in the shower. Our lăoshī continues, ’Think of the second tone figuratively, as rising confusion, like ”huuuh?“ The class responds by repeating her ‘huuuh?’, I believe out of literal confusion than anything else. ‘The third tone is perhaps the most difficult to learn, as the sound quickly moves down and up, similar to a gut wrenching stomach pain followed by throwing up, as displayed in the diagram.’
Death and confusion and being physically sick, this has certainly taken a morbid turn. ‘Finally!’, she exclaims, ‘we get to the fourth tone, the strongest of them all. Think of Novak Djokovic winning a championship and pumping his fists whilst shouting “COME ON!”’
Welcome to the world of Chinese (Mandarin), a language spoken by approximately 800 million people around the world. It is a tonal language with five tones, the four aforementioned, and a fifth ‘neutral’ sound, meaning the pitch or intonation of the way a sound is spoken affects the definition.
This tonal aspect is by far the hardest part of the spoken form of Chinese, with newcomers to the language often mixing up tones, and confusing their Shuìjiào (sleep) with their Shuǐjiǎo (water dumplings). There are many more examples of these potential pitfalls; to my British ears, ‘mā’ (mother) sounds dangerously similar to ‘mǎ’ (horse), and ‘mǎi’ (buy) sounds indistinguishable from ‘mài’ (sell), meaning I could potentially walk into a shop offering to part with the seller’s mother, when I in fact want to purchase a horse. The truth is, however, that context and body language make it easy to overcome these obstacles, with most of the trouble only really arising during telephone conversations.
The hardest (and perhaps most rewarding) part of learning Chinese, and the one I have had the most difficulty in overcoming, is reading and writing Chinese characters. Altogether there are over 50,000 characters, though a comprehensive modern dictionary will rarely list over 20,000 in use. An educated Chinese person will know about 8,000 characters, but you will only need to know about 3,000 to be able to read a newspaper. The problem for most of us who have never studied Chinese is trying to remember the strokes and characters, as there is no obvious linguistic logic to the characters, as it is a historical and continuous language (dating back over 3,500 years), meaning that these complex characters represent morphemes and thought processes from thousands of years ago. The struggle does get easier, however, and I want to share with you my key tips to breaking through the language barrier:
Top four tips for Chinese beginners
Use post-it notes around your home to learn Chinese, by writing the characters on them and sticking them to anything that you can touch. This constant exposure really helps with reading characters.
Buy a notebook and bring it with you on your daily commute. Try to learn five new words a day. The practice really helps your muscle memory. Writing in Chinese gets easier as time goes by as you start to recognise all of the different strokes, making it easier to remember new words.
Don’t be afraid to use your Chinese, no matter how limited! Join the language cafe at Sussex, find Chinese speakers and just dive right in. From my experience Chinese speakers love it when you make an effort to engage with them in their native tongue.
Download the free app Pleco. You can practice writing your characters and it has a comprehensive English to Chinese (and vice-versa) dictionary, and is a life-saver when you need to communicate your intentions.
Jesse McGonigle is a third year English student who is currently on the Sussex Year Abroad programme at University in Taiwan.