Trying to be trilingual

Mandarin is hard.

You have an alphabet, informally known as bopomofo, with 37 characters.

My bopomofo poster - I wrote how to pronounce each character. The different colors indicate different groups. Notice, too, my drawings of how my mouth should be shaped.

They’re sorted into three groups, a bit like our consonants and vowels, and then you throw in tones, of which there are five. These forsaken tones determine how a word is pronounced and add automatic emphasis; it’s not like in English, when you can put oomph into a word. Do that in Mandarin and you change the meaning of the word.

The Chinese symbol for "mother" is the combination of the symbol for "woman" and the symbol for "horse".

The four characters in the chart are pronounced “ma”. There’s a fifth “ma” that basically means “question mark”. Each one is said slightly differently. The fifth tone, not in the chart, is represented by a dot. I think it means to say the letter monotone and fast. It could mean I’m supposed to cross my eyes when I say it. It could mean anything. I get confused.

Now, to complicate things further, the alphabet only tells you how to pronounce a word. It doesn’t show you how to write the character.

To the right of the Chinese character you can see the Bopomofo showing how to pronounce the it. The dashes are the tones. I don't understand why the first character is there when it doesn't use the "X". I don't understand a lot of things.

I have to memorize bopomofo. I have to memorize the tones. That will allow me to read.

I won’t understand what I read, though. To do that, I have to memorize the characters for words and how to write them.

Writing the same word over and over. I actually really enjoy writing in Chinese.

Then I have to memorize what the character is in Mandarin, how to pronounce it, and what it means in English. Then I have to rub my stomach and pat my head and sing the Latin alphabet backwards all at the same time.

My book and notes that I take during Sunny's tutoring lesson. Eschewing bopomofo and just memorizing stuff is a lot easier. Sunny lets me; Ms. Lee doesn't.

Sunny and I meet Thursday mornings at 10:30. We go through one chapter from my book over the course of an hour; I take lots of notes and repeat what she says.

The drawings in my book are creepy. And the bottom right is supposed to say "family". Blame ADD.

I do a lot of repeating, and many times Sunny and I have to discuss how my tongue is supposed to curl in my mouth and where my lips are. Lots of mouth gymnastics.

Pinyin, which spells out how the word is pronounced using the Latin alphabet, gives you a basic idea of how to pronounce the word, just like, "It's about God," gives you a basic idea of what the Bible is about.

I take copious notes in my notebook and in my book, and just about everything has the Chinese character, pinyin (the phonetic spelling of the Chinese word using letters), the English translation, and notes on how to pronounce the word.

Sunny can read Chinese upside down, which I think means she's a genius. If she grunts while I'm writing in my notebook, I've written the character wrong. She grunts a lot.

Mandarin might be easier if I stuffed my mouth with marbles. I’m learning how to make new, weird sounds, and my American tongue often fumbles around my mouth. I imagine I sound a lot like a barnyard animal with all the sounds I make.

Sunny is an awesome teacher, and the proof is that I can understand everything on the board.

At the end of the hour, Sunny and I will often stop, look at the board, and laugh. It’s generally completely covered with Chinese, bopomofo, drawings to help me remember characters, and quick English translations.

I’ll never be fluent, but I’m having fun learning. Thank goodness Sunny thinks it’s fun to teach me, because this would be a miserable venture otherwise.

4 comments

  1. Have you seen Jennifer’s blog on her love of language? This all has to be somewhat genetic. Steph and I love words too. You are, however, our family poster girl for language! I admire you and know that if anyone can learn Mandarin as a second language, you will!

    1. Yup, I read her post the other day 🙂 I definitely don’t want to be fluent in Mandarin; all I want is to know a few things here and there. If I could re-learn Spanish and be fully fluent again, and not just conversationally fluent, that would be awesome. We’ll see if I can make that happen.

  2. This is great! I’m so excited that you’re getting to learn this. Even if the “adventure” has worn off from the every day activities, stuff like this should remind you how far you are from a desk job, a typical work day, and everything mundane that used to exist.

    Also, you’re beautiful, wonderful, talented, loving, and one of the greatest ladies I know. Just thought you should be reminded.

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