Moving right along with the theme, I have chosen mountain to symbolise Chinese – in this instance specifically Mandarin Chinese. The tonal structure of Chinese can quite easily resemble the ups and downs of your average Himalayan (or other) mountain range.
I won’t go into too much detail about the structure of Chinese, largely because there are plenty of language learning sites on the Web looking at Chinese (apparently about 478,000,000). Also, I have only been trying to learn Chinese for 18 weeks now, so I can’t offer too much detail, even if I wanted to.
What I can offer is perceptions, and here is the first one. Imagine trying to hold a conversation with someone while you are both riding motorcycles; sometimes riding side-by-side but as often as not riding in different directions. There would be a lot of shouting and a lot of very short words. The sounds would rise and fall as you approached and separated.
This is my beginner’s guide to Chinese; biker talk. English homophones are confusing to the foreigner, but not usually too varied. We might struggle to find too many examples of triple homophones (pair, pare, pear; weather, whether, wether). Any readers who would like to contribute their own triples (or even aim for a quad) are welcome to do so in the comments below.
However, Chinese has four tones (some might argue for a fifth “untoned” tone).
First tone is straight along the ceiling;
Second tone rises, so floor to ceiling;
Third tone starts at the ceiling, drops to the floor and then rises back to the ceiling;
Fourth tone starts high, drops and that’s it.
As so many Chinese words are single syllables, you really have to get your tones right. The word “mai” changes meaning based on the tone. If it is third tone ‘măi’ then it means “buy”. If it is fourth tone ‘mài’ then it means “sell”. If you are intending to make some money, get it right or you might unintentionally start spending.
My approach to Chinese has been through private instruction, so my teacher has been trying to power through each lesson in the allotted sixty minutes – no easy task when this involves a dialogue (with the aforementioned challenging pronunciation), new vocabulary and the legendary Chinese characters.
I am moderately fortunate to have a little Japanese under my belt as the two languages share common written characters. White in Chinese ‘bái’ is the same character as the Japanese ‘shiroi’ 白.
Nevertheless, the challenge of trying to learn to read at the same time as speaking is significant. The tonal nature of Chinese means that each new word is twice as complex as a non-tonal language; I am attempting to learn the word and the music of the word, because one is meaningless without the other. Add to this the non-alphabetic nature of the script and each new word can be three times more difficult than the equivalent in Korean (alphabetic script) or Arabic (alphabetic script).
Fortunately there are about three times as many Chinese speakers as there are of almost every other language. Add to this the enormous Chinese diaspora in many non-Chinese countries and there are plenty of opportunities to practice.
Add a dash of sizzling Chinese economic growth and the natural pleasure that any national has in seeing a foreigner (and I look pretty darn foreign to your average Chinese citizen) and this creates plenty of incentive to hang in there, slog out the new vocabulary, and climb that Chinese mountain.