Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Learning the Language

I had my first lesson with my Mandarin tutor this afternoon. Kevin came with the knowledge that I had studied under another teacher for 2 months, and had forgotten most of what I learned due to lack of practice. He quickly learned that I had not, in fact, had a language teacher in my class. Rather, I had a woman who spoke English and wanted friends. Kevin planned to start his lessons at the end of my class book, but quickly rewound to his first classes.

Today we studied initials, finals and tones today.

All Chinese words correlate to a character.
All characters are pronounced in 1 syllable.
Each character begins with an initial - one of a short list of constants, or the consonant combinations sh, zh and ch.
Each character ends with a final - one of a finite list of vowels, vowels with endings, or combinations of the two.

Certain finals never match with certain initials. Although this initially seems confusing, I believe it will make learning simpler. Some of the initials sound identical to me, but each of these can only be matched with certain finals so my confusing placed in context ought to disappear.

Conjugation does not exist, because every word is a character. You can not add an s to a character. Just putting a number before it is sufficient enough to signify plurality.

I had already begun to learn that Chinese is a written language before it is a spoken language. Kevin confirmed this for me. Although Chinese developed originally as any language does, out of a need for spoken communication, it developed in a different fashion from English, and other Western languages. As Kevin explained it, in English our words became longer as we developed the need to expand our vocabulary. In Chinese, custom capped syllables at 3 and the language gained 4 tones to expand the vocabulary.

So, one Chinese word written in Roman letters (known as pinyin) can represent at least 4 different characters, and therefore 4 different meanings. The 1st tone is pronounced as a high, steady level, almost like singing. The 2nd tone rises, and sounds like a question. The 3rd tone falls and rises again, with the emphasis on the falling. The 4th tone drops quickly, like in a note of exasperation.

As Kevin explained it, this makes the Chinese language much more stable than English. Because language is based on unchanging characters, rather than on phonetic spellings of words, the language remains the same over centuries. Apparently, he can look at a text written hundreds of years ago and read it without missing any content. There is no 1,000 year old text I can read and fully comprehend, so he has a point. A rather ethnocentric point, but a point nonetheless. Chinese has many different dialects throughout this large nation, each so different that a person from Hong Kong probably can not understand a person from Shanghai. But each relies upon the same characters and can reap the same context from the same piece of written text, although reading it aloud may sound quite different.

After my lesson, I was able to tell our driver not to come tomorrow. I did have to write down what time to come on Thursday, but I'm at least proud of the one accomplishment. Baby steps, baby steps.

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