I’ve decided to learn Chinese. I’m not 24. I’m well into my 50s. I’m guessing there may be other “fifty somethings” who are looking for a new challenge. So, this blog is meant to give periodic updates about my progress over the course of 2018. I hope you’ll eventually say, “Well, heck! If that guy can do it, so can I!”
First of all, learning Chinese wasn’t something I just chose out of the blue. It actually chose me. Before two years ago, I had adjusted fairly well to an American/European mindset. I lived comfortably in the USA. I am a native English speaker. I grew up learning school French and was fortunate to spend some time living in Bordeaux after graduating from college, so I can kick a conversation down the road with any French speaker as long as they don’t talk too fast. I was content there.
However, life had other designs. Two years ago, my wife and I moved to Taiwan, where the native tongue is Mandarin Chinese. To be quite frank, before January 2016, I had thought about Taiwan for maybe 12 minutes in my entire life. Learning Chinese was on my bucket list right under bungee jumping which is right under skydiving which is right under having another root canal. I had literally no interest in the task. It seemed impossible.
And yes, I could probably get by living in Taiwan without learning Chinese. The Taiwanese begin mandatory English lessons very early in their educational system; most natives here speak at least passable English, many speak it famously. However, for me it is embarrassing at best (and, more to the point, presumptuous and rude) to live anywhere in the globe and expect the locals to communicate on my terms.
So, I decided to learn Chinese. I’ve been at it about a year. Here’s what I know thus far. There is some good news and there is some bad news.
First, the good news. You don’t have to learn Chinese characters to learn to speak (and understand) the language. In the late 1950s, The People’s Republic of China officially adopted Hanyu Pinyin, a method of learning Chinese using the Roman/Latin alphabet. This was profound for me because the idea of having to learn the Chinese characters as a pre-requisite to learning the language would probably have been a deal breaker. At least now I have the comfort of my own alphabet in the early stages of learning. I do intend to learn the characters eventually, but my initial progress is not contingent upon learning what looks to me (no offense intended) as hieroglyphics. Mega, huge, good news.
And there is more good news. In Mandarin Chinese there are no verb conjugations. In direct opposition to English (think drink, drank, drunk) Chinese verbs are tenseless. The Mandarin verb for eat, chī, doesn’t change regardless of whether you eat, you just ate, or have already eaten (or will have been eating, for that matter). Of course, there are ways to distinguish tenses and time frames, but at least one isn’t swamped with hundreds of verb variations to express any given activity. Wonderful!
Now for some bad news. Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the same word can be pronounced different ways and have different meanings. There are four different tones (five if you count the neutral tone), and any given word in the language can mean four or five things based on how you say it. For example, the simple (but important) word ma can mean mother, flax, horse, blame, or can be a question word (?) simply based on how you say it. Another example: wen, can mean warm, smell, kiss or ask depending on how it is emphasized. So, the sentence Wǒ wen nǐ can mean I smell you, I kiss you, or I ask you depending on the way it is said. I can actually say to someone, Can I kiss you? and have her think I want to smell her. Bizarre. True story: I was in a restaurant sipping tea with a co-worker the other day and he asked me how I liked the drink. I thought I said, “ Wǒ yào táng (I want sugar).” He had the strangest look on his face as I said it five times. Finally he pointed out I was saying, “Wǒ yào tāng (I want soup).” Maddening!!!
There are roughly 1 billion native Chinese speakers in the world. It is by far the largest spoken language. English ranks 3rd (just after Spanish), logging in a paltry 500 million. And, whereas English is definitely the lingua franca of the current age, many believe that Chinese is next in line. So, I consider myself lucky to have been forced into this corner.
However, that doesn’t make it any easier. Learning Chinese might end up being the most difficult and challenging thing I have ever done. I’ve been at it a year now and I speak Chinese like a…well, a one year old. I figure in about 12 years, I’ll be able to speak adolescent Chinese.