19. a language adventure. pronunciation

We are all capable of correctly pronouncing the sounds of any foreign language. All humans have the same physiological ability to make sounds, regardless of ethnic origin. However, mastering the pronunciation of a new language does require dedication and hard work. Chinese at first represented quite a challenge.

When I wanted to master pronunciation I would spend hours every day listening to the same content over and over. I worked especially hard on mastering Chinese sounds with the appropriate tone. I tried to imitate while listening. I taped my own voice and compared it to the native speaker. I practiced reading in a loud voice. Eventually my ability to hear the differences between my pronunciation and that of the native speaker improved. I would force my mouth to conform to the needs of Chinese pronunciation. I would also work on the rhythm of the new language, always exaggerating and even accompanying my pronunciation with the appropriate facial expressions and gestures. Eventually I was able to achieve a near native quality of pronunciation.

Once I was able to pronounce individual words and phrases satisfactorily, I would find it easier to understand content not designed for the learner: in other words, real authentic material. As my Chinese improved, I particularly enjoyed listening to the famous Beijing Xiang Sheng comic dialogue performer Hou Bao Lin, with his colourful Beijing rhythm of speech. In recent years, to maintain my Mandarin, I sometimes listen to CDs of famous Chinese storytellers, like Yuan Kuo Cheng, narrating classic novels such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The storytelling art in China is highly developed and when I listen to one of these CDs I thoroughly enjoy being transported back to a bygone era.

After struggling though the frustrations of confronting such a different language I was soon able to enjoy my learning. Within eight months of starting my studies, I could appreciate essays by intellectuals and novels

by Chinese writers of the 1930s like Lao She and Lu Xun. I also became familiar with the writings of Mao Tse Tung and the polemics of the Cultural Revolution. There were many words I did not understand, but it was not my purpose to learn every new word. I was just reading for pleasure and training my mind to the Chinese writing system. I was working to develop my ability to guess at meaning, an important learning skill which develops gradually with enough exposure to a language. I was also absorbing an understanding of the culture.

The world of the thirties in China was far removed from the reality of China in the late 1960s. Pre-Liberation China was full of tragedy, poverty, and uncertainty. China was torn apart by internal rivalries between different political forces and selfish local warlords, while fighting off foreign invasion. These were cruel and hard times. Yet to me, China was fascinating and even romantic. With enough distance in time or space, periods of warfare and struggle can seem heroic. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the epic Chinese novel, or the glorification of the knights of Medieval Europe, are but two examples of how legend and literature romanticize periods of terrible human suffering. Chinese society was looking for its place in a world where foreign influence had all of a sudden collided with a complex, brilliant and previously self-contained Chinese civilization in decline.

The Chinese intellectual class that had been one of the main supports of traditional China was now searching for its new role.



19. a language adventure. pronunciation