This week I finished the first Mandarin language course book after just over 30 hours of classes. Two more and I will have completed the beginner level. So technically I should now be able to greet people (appropriately at different times of the day), introduce myself and others, buy cakes and clothes, order food (online doesn’t count apparently), take taxis, make appointments and book all kinds of tickets. Easier said than done…
Yes, I can introduce myself. Not that I do this everywhere I go but still, I can. Food. Well, I have been able to buy real beef (after asking) but have given up ordering ‘yi bei re kafei Americano’ in Starbucks just because it sounds so silly saying Americano after trying my best to speak Chinese. It just makes me feel weird. Buying clothes has not been much of a pastime, partly because shop assistants follow you around shops constantly (literally like a meter behind you) which really takes the fun out of browsing, however it may explain why the book devoted a whole chapter to this subject. As far as transport goes, I have managed to buy train tickets but the taxi driver can still only get left and right out of me, which has proven to be enough to get me home. Pointing also works in taxis but it is not advised in shops due to the previously mentioned overzealous shop assistants.
Chinese is hard. Full stop. It’s not the grammar, the vocabulary or even the fact that they don’t really have words but just write syllables. It is the tones and the pronunciation that I find the hardest. In Pinyin, there are four tone marks and depending on which one is used, a word gets a different meaning, so you can image how often I try to say stuff and get stared back at blankly, although this has also happened to me in California…
But to put things in perspective, learning Dutch is not exactly a walk in the park either. A few minutes scouring the internet gave me some opportunity to delight in the suffering of others trying to learn my native tongue. It made me feel just a little bit less useless at learning Mandarin…
English speakers find it hard to pronounce (amongst other things…let’s not talk about the letter ‘g’) the Dutch word for onion, ‘ui’ and I do secretly take some pleasure from getting Richie to say the Dutch word for jumper (trui), although it’s not as funny as it used to be (he figured it out).
Then of course English has its pitfalls too. Try to read ‘The Chaos‘, a poem written by Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870–1946), a Dutch guy incidentally. It has over 250 lines so here are some of my favorites (the whole poem can be found here):
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover.
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice.
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger;
Then say: singer, ginger, linger.
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.
A whole other level of funny comes from Dutch people trying to speak English. A few years ago I read this hilarious book I always get my sin by Maarten H. Rijkens and some of the entries still crack me up:
I do not want to fall with the door in house.
We have to look further than our nose is long.
I still have issues myself with lend and borrow as there is only one word for this in Dutch (lenen). And let’s not talk about calling my handle bars a steering wheel….it drives some people mad…
So I will just continue learning Mandarin and maybe people will laugh at me but that’s ok, it probably will be funny. When I am going to be able to pronounce this quickly: sì shi sì, shí shi shí, shísì shi shísì, sìshí shi sìshí (meaning four is four, ten is ten, fourteen is fourteen, forty is forty), I may move on to the Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den….
Did I mention I can read five Chinese characters… that will be another story.0