With Grunts and Groans: Attempting to Learn Chinese

My new wall hanging. If I learn Chinese well enough, I should even be able to read it!

Saying sounds on their own is not a good way to fall in love with a language. I’m surprised it ever worked for me back in kindergarten when I was learning phonics! Maybe it’s just because English sounds are more normal to me. Perhaps I’m even getting as English-centric as the fellow who declared that English was the best and most common-sense language in the world—and his proof was that he thought in it (I pray I’m not that narcissistic, though!).

Chinese sounds, however, are weirder than English sounds. All the zhs and chs and shs and rs (no, it’s NOT said like an “r” in English) are mind-bogglingly similar. And don’t even get me started on the vowel sounds—who knew that the simple letter “e” could make a sound similar to the one you make when you’re punched in the gut? I didn’t. Or that the difference between “chu” (pronounced /tʃu/) and “qu” (pronounced /tʃeu/) is a slight rounding of the vowel sound, which English speakers generally don’t even listen for?

So on the first few days of class, as the teacher went around the room having everyone pronounce all the sounds of Chinese, I have to admit they sounded funny. None of us—all Americans—were good at sounding like a Chinese speaker. In fact, we all sounded distinctly American and out-of-place. Sometimes we sounded like we’d had the wind knocked out of us. Speaking American English doesn’t prepare you well for learning the sounds of a different language, and Chinese has some definitely odd sounds.

On the plus side, though, tones are actually one of the easiest parts of learning Chinese. It’s a built in way to make you start thinking in the rhythm and intonation of the language. Of course they use them differently than English speakers do—instead of rising in intonation for a yes/no question, they rise in intonation for second-tone words. Just listen to a Chinese person speaking English and you’ll get an idea of the differences in intonation.

Language learning is like sanctification—it tears away masks put on by habits and shows you for who you really are. Then it builds you back up till you are, in some ways, a new person. It’s hard. It can’t happen immediately. And you will make mistakes—probably many times. And you will probably never become perfect.

You can’t be a perfectionist either—or you never get anywhere. Whenever Jared or I try to say anything in Chinese to a Chinese person, they laugh. Or look confused. Introducing himself to a random Chinese person in the cafeteria today, Jared tried to say, “Wo zhongye shi guoji zhuanxi” (my major is international relations). The Chinese person replied, “Oh, you study alternative medicine?” Apparently Jared had a tone wrong someplace or another.

To really excel at learning a language, you have to be willing to put aside some things that you think of as truly essential to who you are—you have to totally change the way you think and speak. You have to be willing to speak confidently, even when something as ingrown as your language is being changed. And you have to be willing to try again—and again, and again, and again. Hesitance and pride will get you nowhere. If you say something hesitantly in Chinese (as I tend to do), you will get the tone wrong (unless it’s a fourth tone and falling anyways).

They say perfect fluency is hard to achieve in any second language—the last five percent is the hardest to achieve. Ask anyone who’s lived a long life, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing about perfection. Of course, perfection is impossible, and learning a language perfectly is not. But sometimes the hard things are the ones most worth striving for.

P. S. Jared is actively working on his sanctification right now—he’s drawing characters and making pronouncements in Chinese about my family, while singing along to Mumford and Sons (I’m not sure how that really helps him with Chinese!).

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