Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I was Chinese for 1.5 minutes today ...

I had lunch today with a friend from New York. He knows I'm learning Mandarin, so he got his one work colleague - a Chinese person - to teach him a couple of phrases before coming to London. The dialogue went roughly like this ...

NY:  This is the phrase I learned ...
Greg:  Go ahead.
NY:  wǒ​ shì​ huàn​ hé​chà​
Greg:  Uhm ...

So in my mind, I'm trying to work out what he said. And the thoughts are buzzing through my head ...
  • The sentence clearly begins with "I am" (wǒ​ shì​) - I can hear that. 
  • Next is huàn, which sounds like 换 (change/exchange). There are probably other versions of huàn, but right now I can't think of others. If I can work out the rest of the sentence, then maybe this part will make more sense. I'll come back to it ...
  • What on earth is hé​chà? I've seen a few words lately that begin with 合 (join/together/...)​, like 合适 (hé​shì=suitable), 合资 (hé​zī= joint venture), but what is hé​chà??
  • No, I really can't work out what he said. Let me ask him ...

Greg: Uhm, sorry.  I give up. What are you saying?
NY: wǒ​ shì​ huàn​ hé​chà​ ...

(Dear readers of Mandarin Segments, have you worked it out yet?)

NY:  "I like to drink tea."
Greg:  Oh ... you mean "wǒ xǐ​huan​ hē chá​" !
NY:  Yes, that's what I said.
Greg:  !!!

And this, ladies & gentlemen, is the moment when I experienced how Chinese people must feel when foreigners speak to them in Chinese. The words are wrong. The tones are wrong. And they (just like me) have no idea what is being said.

But I was flattered that he had bothered to memorise a short phrase for me, and it led onto an interesting conversation about tones.

And you know what? It's not so bad to be Chinese and hear a foreigner make mistakes when trying to speak Chinese. Why was I so nervous to try in the beginning?

You're not nervous, are you? I can say for sure, having been Chinese for 1.5 minutes, that you have nothing to be nervous about!

You're welcome to leave comments in English, but for fun, why don't you leave comments in Chinese - whether using hanzi or pinyin? Keep it as simple as you like, and take a risk. How many of you will dare?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Quickies don't work for me

I recently got back from two weeks in China (having visited Yangshuo, Guilin and Beijing), and I wanted to share a quick observation about my ability to interact with people in Mandarin.

Am I the only one who experiences this? I'd love to hear from you - either way - so please leave a quick comment below.

Basically, when I have a conversation which lasts more than a few minutes, I have a relatively high success rate: I can understand them, they can understand me, and we can cover a decent range of topics. But when the conversation is just a quick one - one of us asking a question and the other required to answer - the success rate is definitely not as good.

For example:
  • I might ask someone for directions - and they reply back to me with a series of rapid sentences which I just don't get. Sure, I hear words like "qián​miàn" (forwards), "yòu​bian" (on your right) and "rán​hòu" (thereafter) ... but it's too much too quickly, and I invariably have to ask them to repeat themselves more slowly.
  • Interestingly, when I first engage them in a short-ish conversation first, and so give them the opportunity to gauge my vocab and listening-skills, then I have a much greater success rate in understanding the directions which I then ask for - because they will have calibrated to my level.
  • Similarly, when I enter a shop, and the assistant comes up to me and speaks a few sentences - I often have no idea what they're saying. Again, too much, too fast. It might be something as simply as "Thanks for popping in. We've got some great special offers, but I'll leave you to look around yourself for a while, and then when you're ready please come speak to me again." Or maybe they're just asking me not to touch anything because I might break it.
  • Also, when getting into a taxi (especially in Beijing) and telling the driver where I want to go, I guess his assumption is that I can speak Chinese well - because they then launch into a one minute speech, which usually goes right over my head. (When I tell them that I didn't understand, usually the younger drivers will try again more slowly, probably using simpler language, while the older drivers either tend to say it again just as fast, or they simply shrug and remain silent.)

Is there a moral to this story? Probably - I can think of a few. But why don't you take a moment, think about what this means to you in relation to your own Mandarin studies, and then leave a comment for other readers.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The two most common mistakes of Mandarin podcasters

I listen to Chinese podcasts to learn Chinese, and I accept it's perhaps a little off-colour to be commenting on their English. But there are two very common mistakes I hear these podcasters make - which (oddly) seems to be as common with the native-English podcasters as with the Chinese - and I really need to get this off my chest.

1. pronunciation
The word is "proNUNciation", and not "proNOUNciation". I know it's a little confusing because the verb is "proNOUNce", but when it becomes a noun it loses the "O". Yes, the spelling actually changes. Given that this word is often heard on language-tuition podcasts, this mistake occurs regularly.

(And if you don't believe me, look it up in a dictionary :-)

2. mnemonic
Again, this word is commonly used, and often pronounced incorrectly. The correct phonetic pronunciation (proNUNciation, BTW) is "NE-mon-ic". It is not "NOO-mon-ic". Maybe you're thinking of a word like "pneumatic", which does indeed begin with "NOO-...".  But not this one.

(And if you don't believe me ... )

There, I've said it.  I feel better now.  Thanks for listening.  (And if you can think of a mnemonic for getting the pronunciation of "pronunciation" correct, let us know :-)