Language Barrier

As part of our adventure to China, Joe and I are going back to university.  From March we will be students at the Southwest University for Nationalities (SWUN) in Chengdu where we will be studying Mandarin four hours a day, five days a week.  What started out as a ploy to easily secure a six month visa has fast become one of the elements I am most looking forward to about our time in China.

It’s safe to say I don’t really have a head for languages.  At school, I could accurately be described as a massive swot – as an awkward, gawky teenager it was really the only path for me to take.  However, my interests very much lay in biology and maths and I was far more interested in learning about the Krebs cycle and solving a simultaneous equation than I was about learning a language – in my case the one on offer was German. I really only elected to take Higher German at my mother’s suggestion as I’d run out of sciences to study unless I wanted to tackle Higher physics (after two years of loathing my standard grade classes I definitely didn’t).  So I spent a year unenthusiastically learning my Ders, Dies and Dasses, largely copying my neighbour and scribbling tiny pieces of German copy into the margins of the dictionary I was inexplicably allowed to take into all of my exams.  I may have got an A but it was more for ingenuity in cheating and memorising large volumes of text to recite on cue, as opposed to having developed any actual foreign language skills. The fact that I can now only remember how to order a slice of black forest gateau with cream and exclaim that I have a headache in German reflects this.

So it is with some trepidation that I take on the seemingly mammoth task of learning Mandarin; a language with tens of thousands of characters in place of an alphabet and where spoken words take on an entirely different meaning depending on which of five tones you use.  This use of tone means it’s almost a musical language and I have been told that people with strong musical abilities find it easier to pick up…anyone who witnessed my efforts with the flute over 6 years at secondary school knows full well that, again, this is not a skill I possess.

In an attempt to not be completely lost when we arrive in Beijing in 10 days time, Joe and I have  been attempting to pick up the basics using the Memrise app and Chineasy – a visual based learning system which uses clever graphic design to teach characters, simple sentences and phrases.  So far I have just about got to grips with the characters and spoken words for man, big, person and tree.  Unfortunately I have quickly learnt that typically, unless these characters stand alone, they mean something entirely different when used as part of a phrase or sentence.  For example the character for big is 大 () and the character for person is 人 (rén. Put them side by side so it reads 大人 , literally ‘big person’ and it translates as adult.  So far, so good – that seems logical and makes sense.  However, swap big for the character for man 夫  () so it reads 夫人, ie. ‘man person’ and it does in fact mean madam.  The explanation that Chineasy offers is that in ancient China,  a woman becomes her husband’s property after marriage so is in effect a man’s person.  Man + person = madam.  Easy, right?!  It may just be me but that certainly isn’t a path my mind would naturally follow.  Not to mention the fact that it certainly doesn’t do anything for feminism.

It’s fair to say that Mandarin definitely isn’t too kind to women.  Another charming example I found in Chineasy is the character for obey 如 (). This character is a combination of those used for woman 女 () and mouth 口 (koù). A woman in ancient China didn’t speak her own opinions, she obeyed, hence the evolution of this character.  On top of this, the character for woman itself evolved from the thought of women as second class citizens – it traditionally depicts an outline of a woman kneeling on the floor showing her obedience to a man.  Oh dear.

All feminist outrage aside, it’s clear that this is going to be an uphill struggle.  Studies in China have shown that functional literacy in Mandarin requires a knowledge of between three to four thousand characters so we have a heck of a long way to go before we will be anywhere near competent with reading or writing.  However, I am optimistic that it will be hugely enjoyable to learn, not least because my brain is crying out for a decent workout following six years of relative stagnation in London.  In the meantime, Joe and I will continue with our flashcards and iPads to at least ensure we know our Ps and Qs as we first navigate Beijing…and most importantly learn how to order Peking duck!


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