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Napoleon Hill wrote in his bestselling book Think and Grow Rich, “There are no limitations to the mind except those we acknowledge.”
Do you say to yourself, “I am too old/young/fat/skinny/rich/poor/educated/uneducated/white/black/gay/straight/hairy/hairless/sheep/goat to be learning a new language [or insert any formidable-sounding thing].”
Realize this kind of negative talk is self-defeating and that you are your own worst enemy.
For instance, for a long time, I felt like going to China because I had never been there. I am half Cantonese, half Taiwanese, born and raised in the States. With a fierce determination to not suck at Mandarin (I already spoke fluently in a dialect of Cantonese at home), I told my parents I wanted to study abroad in Beijing, China, and the moment they agreed (they were, after all, fronting the tuition and plane ticket), the rest is history.
There doesn’t need to be a huge practical reason why you need to learn a language
Let me repeat that, for the world tends to focus on the practical and rational versus the heart reason: There doesn’t need to be a huge practical reason why you need to learn a language.
Spoken language itself is made to be an active communicative dialogue between two or more persons. People don’t speak to each other solely because it’s the hot language of the month, it’s a business advantage that one needs to have, it’s the only way to stand out in the piles of university applications, and so forth.
If you feel like learning Mandarin, let your heart feel it, embrace it, then do it.
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Let’s break down learning Mandarin, shall we?
Here are the 5 ways to get you started saying, “Ni hao ma?” instead of the usual, “Sup dawg. I’m feelin’ some bao zi and bubble tea now, wanna hit up
Chinatown?” Though that, of course, is also useful, naturally.
1. Tones are not limiting. You are.
Mandarin, a stress-timed language, has 4 tones whereas Cantonese, a syllable-timed language, has 9. Vietnamese has 6 tones in the North, and depending on other regions, it could have just 5. The Jul-hoan language of Africa has some 30 click consonants. There are many, many more tonal languages in the world.
So in all honesty, tones are not the real problem here. Have some faith in yourself!
Even if you completely mess up on asking where the bathroom is, the locals will probably be able to decipher bits and pieces of your jumbled Mandarin, enough to point you to the hole in the ground (squat toilets) before you pee your pants and look like a fool.
The 4 tones in Mandarin are:
Tone 1: Level Tone (ping) -> –
Tone 2: Rising Tone (shang) -> /
Tone 3: Departing Tone (qu) -> V
Tone 4: Entering/Stop-Final Tone (ru) ->
So, if I write a sentence in pinyin (the official system to transcribe Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet) to say, ‘Hi, my name is Nina. You’re very pretty.’ I would write it as, ‘Ni3 hao3, wo3 jiao4 Nina. Ni3 hen3 piao4 liang4.’ Which, by the by, you are. Don’t you just love how that worked out?
Now, what this means for you is tones matter when learning how to speak Mandarin. One word in Chinese can mean completely different things when you change the tones.
For instance, for my first oral examination at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), I wanted to tell my teacher that I went to Wangfujing Night Market and ate fried scorpions. Verdict: try it sometime. Not as scary/creepy/disgusting as you think!
Scorpion in Mandarin is xie1 zi.