I thought I’d get a head start this time and master the rudiments of the Chinese language before my planned arrival in Hangzhou in mid-February. ‘Planned arrival’, indeed! Although my contract stipulates I should be there ready to teach on 22nd February, the wheels of Chinese bureaucracy grind very slowly and at the moment it looks likely I will miss the start of the new term… Still, miracles are not unheard of and I remain optimistic.
It’s been a while since I have attempted to pick up a new language as I can hardly count my half-hearted attempt at learning a few essential words of Malayalam, the language of Kerala. Once I knew how to avoid milky and sugary tea, and where to find the spices to cook a decent curry, the need to add to my limited vocabulary seemed ‘de trop’. I survived on pidgin English (the Indians’, not mine), supplemented with body language and hand gestures, stabs in the dark and finding someone who actually spoke proper English. It worked rather well as most people were more keen to improve their English than I was to acquire their language. But having a few weeks to fill before moving to China has inspired me to do things differently this time round and to at least learn a few useful expressions and words; if not to speak them, then at least to be able to read or understand them.
Where to start? The internet is awash with websites plying free Chinese lessons, so which one to choose? Having established that Mandarin was the one to plump for, I went surfing. I discovered a pretty sensible website that offered useful phrases, written in Pinyin, which is a widely-used system of writing Mandarin Chinese relying on the Latin alphabet and making pronunciation of Mandarin words almost achievable for non-Chinese mortals – that is if you ignore the importance of tones…. But I also took advice from people in the know, such as someone who studied Mandarin at university. She recommended a different website as a starting point, a website that firmly adheres to teaching me proper Mandarin, with pictures and Chinese characters and refrains from explaining the importance of the four (or is it five) different tones of each symbol denoting an entirely different word. Pinyin is so for wimps… It certainly seemed a good introduction to the real Chinese I will be faced with in China.
After 72 hours of hard slog I have achieved the following: 15 words have firmly penetrated my long term memory, some of them totally irrelevant to my needs! Will I require the words ‘wrap’ and ‘horse’ on my arrival? I am more likely to be unwrapping rather than wrapping, and will definitely not make my entrance to the country on horseback, nor need to ride a horse to my place of residence!! And if I am beginning to recognise a sprinkling of Chinese characters and pictures, the accompanying sounds elude me each time… apart from maybe ‘nihao’ – the Chinese greeting, which roughly translate as ‘you well?’ And this is when the logic of learning pointless words suddenly becomes apparent as more ‘complex’ Chinese symbols are made up of other, simpler symbols which on their own have a totally different and unrelated meaning…
Or is there some logic indeed?? I am happy to buy into the notion that adding a child to a woman indeed blends into a ‘good’ thing and since the Americans blurred the difference between ‘good’ and ‘well’, a Chinese hello can easily be interpreted as ‘You good?’ (US) or as ‘You well?’ (proper English…). Applying a measure of Pinyin reveals that NiHao consists of Ni (you) + Hao (good/well) and indeed refers to the pleasantries exchanged when people bump into each other and merely enquire about each other’s good health.
I am, however, more intrigued about what is implied by combining the symbols of woman and horse into ‘mother’. Add to this that the only difference between a mother and a horse lies in the intonation applied to the word: ‘ma’, it is hard to escape the feeling there must be a link… somewhere… And indeed, a little exploration of the Chinese Horoscope unearths the following about the horse: Serving man in war, agriculture, productivity, mobility, development of all kinds, horse is considered to be one of the largest contributors to the enhancement of civilization. Just like women then!! And mothers??? Well, they are women saddled with the burden of having to learn to multi-task, or is this just the modern word for ‘working like a horse’?
Although I do not wish to miss out on the fun of learning a language that relies on pictures rather than letter sequences, and has no affinity to the more familiar (to me) Germanic and Romance based languages of Europe, and quite frankly is all Greek and Double Dutch to me… I could just opt for the ‘point and shoot’ method. All I really need is to install an app on my phone and iPad, take a picture of the secret code and press a button to unlock the mystery… A translation in English at my fingertips!! And it already exists!
Now that I have resolved the issue with the written language, I will just have to get an ear for the Chinese sounds and tones, learn to imitate them and interpret them… Piece of cake, I am sure… But it will certainly give me a proper taste of what my little learners will be going through as well!