Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On Learning Chinese

"不到长城非好" — Chinese idiom (tr: until you reach the Great Wall, you are not truly a man)

To learn Chinese is a lifelong commitment. It is a language that, for the average English speaker, obliterates all else in its path. In high school, I started to learn Spanish; I maintained a rudimentary understanding of it throughout college—that is, until I began Mandarin classes. Any attempt to speak Español now comes out as a strange pidgin tongue mixing tones and rolled R's, an indecipherable gobbledygook. It's not that I can't remember Spanish, that's not the problem. I begin to form a thought, and as my tongue wraps itself around the first "Yo" or "Tu" of the sentence, my mind starts changing itself and commands of me a "Wo" or a "Ni." Even as I wrote that last sentence, I wanted to type "tu" but my fingers said "ni," and I had to go back and change things around. 

Here, in the student dorm at Beiyu, we speak another pidgin language called Chinglish. I ask for a plate of jiaozi or say "throw me a ping of pijiu," and we understand each other, but to the people outside or the friends back home, it is meaningless. Conversation is peppered with new vocabulary words, but the grammar remains firmly English, and any attempt to reconcile the yufa and the shengci of the two languages leaves me spellbound—what exactly am I trying to do here?

Out at the foot of the Great Wall in a small village in Hebei province, I met a boy who spoke beautiful Mandarin, and it shouldn't surprise me at all. He is seven years old, he was raised in Hebei, he's of (I could only guess) Han descent, and his father and mother work at the Wall itself as tour guides, sherpas-of-sorts, or what-have-you. For a brief moment I forgot that Chinese was as innate to this boy as English was to me, and I was blown away. For one millisecond I was jealous, even, until I realized what exactly I was thinking, until my mind snapped out of a daze and reminded me that yes, Mandarin is spoken by billions—children, adults, natives and non-natives alike. I playfully fought this boy with a wooden stick and a plastic sword, and I could only say "ni zhen lihai, xiao pengyou," but it was basic communication, and it really didn't matter what language we were speaking because he was happy, laughing. 

A certain foreign policy professor told his students that they had pretty much missed the boat for the Chinese language. The trail has been blazed, the jobs are snatched up, et cetera blah blah, but I'm not in this for a job (and even if I was, China is gigantic). I can't pinpoint what it is that I'm really doing, but I know I am enjoying it, I'm meeting wonderful people, and I'm hoping that my language skills continue to increase, not to increase my marketability, but so that I can more effectively communicate—with whoever. 


  1. hahahha, it is the same way when i speak english with my friend, just because i learnt spanish for a short time, so that kind of accent influences my english. well actually my spanish is not so good but I love that language so very much and speak some sentences in a similiar way of accent with latin america people.

    and i love mandarin too, i was in taiwan for a short time of months.
    and if you want to get extra learning of this chinese language, please join us in Mandarin Education Center:

  2. Hi,

    Chinese lessons can be designed to let students have a feeling on Chinese Mandarin's phonics and Chinese Characters, and build a sense of Chinese language in a short time. Learn Chinese you'll also learn something about their culture and that little bit of understanding will definitely give you an advantage in your business dealings. Thanks a lot...

    Learning Chinese Mandarin