Monday, March 26, 2007

On Learning Mandarin


Ni hao, world outside of my Chinese textbooks! Allow me to explain those little scribbles that dance through my head.

As part of the NYU program here, all students are required to take Chinese. With my handful of Arabic phrases, Spanish minor and extensive knowledge of Plump Dumpling's menu, that puts me smack in Elementary I. This translates to six hours of class a week (90 minute classes, Monday-Thursday morning), two hours of mandatory tutoring and countless hours glued to my notes and Chinese books, jotting down characters, listening to bizarre sounds and making noises that I'm sure are raping the ears of any native speakers. And yes, I've been here for a month now.

I have an amazing teacher and tutor and have even resorted to taking my flash cards and textbook to the gym. But something about Chinese just doesn't stick to my brain. It's been frustrating (red ink on a quiz) and satisfying (recognizing a character on a street sign) and I'm trying to take it all as part of the "cultural experience." I haven't decided whether or not to continue my intensive study of Mandarin when I get back to the states, but I've already decided that, as hokey as this sounds, learning such a completely foreign language is a humbling experience beyond words or characters. I can now convey basic information to street vendors, cab drivers and security guards, but often feel like with every new character I learn, an old on pops out of an ear.

For those who aren't familiar, Mandarin is the official language of China, but I've already been warned that the variation in dialects in China is so intense that billions of people can't understand each other anyway. It has four tones, no concrete alphabet, and they say that to get the gist of a newspaper, one must know 1,000 characters. Most educated Chinese people know anywhere from 6,000-8,000 and last I heard, there are 30,000 in the whole language. I know about 60. These characters combine to form an infinite number of words and expressions and all have distinct sounds, which are written out in Pinyin, which is practically a language itself, but a godsend to foreign learners. Locals are extremely receptive and eager to help with any pronunciation and even fling some English in return. The other night, I sat in the front seat of a cab and yammered out my 4 or 5 sentences. At the end of the ride, he takes my fare and says "I speak English. Thanks!" I wonder what the Chinese word is for "blargh."

Well, zaijian, for now. Back to my Monday night reality.