Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Look at Language

Try to pronounce this phrase…
Gǔde māoníng
Still confused?...
Goo-duh Mao-ning
Have you caught on?
Right now, you might sound like a Chinese person trying to say “Good morning”. If so, great job, you’re exactly right.

At the Shanghai World Expo last year, the Chinese government handed out thick pamphlets filled with English phrases accompanied by Chinese characters to help with pronunciation. It's no wonder why so many people here have horrendous accents when speaking English.

A lot of people have said to me things like “Oh my god, you’re studying Chinese, that’s insane.” Well, I just want to clarify that there is a definite method to the madness that is learning Chinese. What I do is treat Chinese as a Romance language (one that uses the A-Z alphabet) and learn words in pinyin (phonetic writing with tones). At a much slower rate, I learn the characters for these words. For me, memorizing pictures is extremely unnatural, and the fastest way to learn Chinese is to simply stick with what I know.

 In viewing Chinese as a Romance language I notice that pinyin words only end with a, e, i, o, u, n, r, and g. Each character is a one syllable word (the longest possible is 6 letters like chuang or shuang). When you think about English and all the different combinations of letters, word endings, silent letters, and bizarre pronunciations (e.g. curtain, asthma, receipt), you can begin to understand why English may be just as hard to learn for a Chinese person as Chinese is for an English-speaking person.

Chinese has four tones: (1) the tone that you make when you sing “Do-re-mi…”, (2) the tone you make when asking a question (3) the low noise that comes out when you groan, and (4) the tone you make when you say “no!”. In pinyin, they look like this: mā, má, mǎ, mà. Tones, along with characters are definitely the most unnatural and most difficult part about Chinese, but I’m definitely starting to get accustomed to them. I would compare the difficulty of mastering tones to the difficulty of understanding where to place certain emphases in English. For instance, think about the words “mechanical” and “mechanism”. Notice how they’re pronounced differently? Think about how hard mastering this concept is for a non-native speaker.

For me, I find words like lǜse and jùzi very unnatural.  (which means green) sounds like “lyoo” (say “yoo” first and then add the “l” sound to it). If I slip up and say “loo”, I’ve now accidentally said the word for road. Similary, try understanding the difference between zhù (which sounds like “jew”) and  ("jyoo"). While these kinds of differences seem so subtle to a native English speaker, they are simply a natural part of the Chinese language.

One thing that I struggle to understand is why Chinese people often wrongly interchange “l” and “r” when speaking English. They have both “l” and “r” in their frickin’ language. What I do know is that English words that get Chinese-ified often follow this switching of r and l  pattern. For instance, Walmart becomes 沃尔玛 (Wò’ěrmǎ) and Andy Roddick becomes 安迪 罗迪克 (Āndí Luódíkè).

My parents and brother came to visit me this week, and we went to the Shanghai Rolex Masters, where we watched Andy Roddick in his first round victory.

There are actually some Chinese words and phrases that use Roman letters rather than characters. For instance, take a look at the following sentence:
我们唱卡拉OK的时候, 我想让T洫最难看的朋友付钱但是最后我们还是决定AA.
When we went to sing karaoke, I wanted to make my friend with the really ugly t-shirt pay for us all, but, in the end, we decided to each pay for ourselves.
(You have to make sure to pronounce the letters with a Chinese accent though.)

My friends Andrew and Aisha singing a passionate duet. Karaoke in China is extremely popular and a ton of fun. Karaoke clubs offer private rooms for groups, and it's very common to stay for three or four hours.

Learning Chinese forces me to view the world in a much more logical manner. The way that Chinese words are formed is very practical (put different characters to make new meanings), so to learn and remember them I need to adopt a practical mentality. Take a look at the following examples:

Literal Meaning
Power switch

Although learning Chinese means studying a language comprised of strange character pictures and no English cognates (besides some brand names, celebrity names, and loanwords), the above chart demonstrates one of the reasons that I find Chinese fun to learn. Chinese, for the most part, makes sense. And while Chinese people may struggle to remember a word like yogurt, there’s no way I could ever forget sour-milk.


  1. wow it seems you are learning quite a lot in such short time. now are you learning chinese at cornell as well or just in china.

    well best of luck with your following career and studies in chinese

  2. Thanks a lot! I took four semesters of Mandarin before coming to Shanghai, which gave me a solid grounding, but it just can't compare to how much you pick up when you're surrounded by the language every day.

  3. agreed- in that case its more like every language is like that. though i do believe chinese will be very important in the coming years especially in business, etc. hope you learn even more!
    and keep writing every new thing you learn in your daily life as your still in shanghai