Learning Mandarin. Our main motive for moving here.
In the Americas, you often hear Chinese immigrants speaking Cantonese. China has several languages, but Mandarin is the official language, and spoken by over 800 million people. It’s the language with the most speakers! If you have seen art films from China, you have probably heard it. It has a lot of sh and rr sounds.
It’s hard, but I am really making an effort to learn. Once I got here, I started listening to lessons on my ipod, and now have a private teacher a few times a week.
Of course, the secret to learning a language is to go out there, practice, and make a fool of yourself as much as possible. I’m accomplishing this mission with zeal. Most Chinese don’t speak any English at all, but the younger generations all learn it in high school, and some take it really seriously. As part of the Olympic push, people gamely make an effort. This helps a lot, since I can speak only a few phrases and then I’m lost. Someone always seems to swoop in and save me.
My attempts at Mandarin are typically received with embarrassed chuckles, and more often profound confusion. Unlike other languages, you have to really nail the pronunciation to be understood. In Mandarin, I can finally get across “Do you speak English?” and by the time I warble out “I don’t speak Chinese” they usually get it. But I can ask for a coffee, water or beer. Forest can say “diet coke.” “Hello” and “thank you” are the phrases that all foreigners can say. “My name is…” comes out pretty easily for me now, and “where are you from” is one I’m working on. I liked learning the names of countries, and it helped when we were furniture shopping, when I asked where a table was from that we were looking at. The women understood, and when they answered Germany, I got it! (De Guo; America is Mei Guo).
I have been practicing a bit with our driver, and can politely ask to be taken somewhere, although my driver would rather I just get to the point. Forest finally got the words for left, right and straight under his belt. If you are not careful with how you say “driver” you will say something really obscene.
I can say he/we/ I like it or don’t like something. “I don’t know” is fun to say — “Wo bu ji dao,” but it sounds a lot like “you’re welcome” “—“bu ke gi” and excuse me — “dui bu qi.”
We had trouble ordering our sofa today. Seemingly basic vocabulary can be a real problem, such as asking “how many pillows are included.” It took awhile to first establish that Forest was talking about pillows (after one of the salesgirls made a joke about her flab). Then we found out where they were made, what they were made out of, how much they were in multiple fabrics, when they would be delivered, everything but how many came with the couch!
Luckily, we have a couple of people we can turn to for translation–mainly Forest’s co-workers, and the relocation agents. This week is China’s national holiday, and all those people will be on vacation. We’ll be doing lots of pantomime!