Monday, December 15, 2008

Basic Chinese Class

Explanation and Practice with Tones 2 and 3 in Mandarin Chinese

Phonics Text Book Cover

All first-time students at the Mandarin Training Center had to take two weeks of Mandarin Phonetics during their first month in the program. We also started our regular conversation classes later the same day. The phonetic classes went from 8 to 10 every morning. Lynne then went straight into her conversation class from 10 to 12, but I had to wait until 2 in the afternoon. Lynne taught English for most of the afternoon.

The phonetics class taught us the Mandarin phonetic symbols, better known as bo, po, mo, fo. They are something like the Japanese hiragana and katakana alphabets. The first few days weren’t too hard because we were just learning the symbols and how to pronounce the sounds. The only difficult sounds are the four retroflex syllables that you have to say with a curled tongue. Then the teacher brought in the tones. Mandarin has four tones, a high even tone, a rising tone, a tone that falls and rise, and a falling tone (see the picture of textbook page). There is also a short, light tone that is rarely used. The theory was not hard to grasp, but try as we might we couldn’t hear the tones, much less say them. I was not used to failing quizzes, but when they started adding tones to the mix, I failed every single quiz. It was so frustrating.

The conversation class was a little bit better. For the first week, the conversation teacher reviewed the phonics lessons and made sure we could write the symbols of the bo, po, mo, fo alphabet. During the second week, we began regular conversational instruction. The Mandarin Training Center also started us right out with Chinese characters. Each lesson consisted of a short dialog, a list of vocabulary, and a set of sentence pattern practices. We had to memorize each dialog until we could recite it and write it from memory. Then we had to learn to read and write the characters and use the sentence patterns orally and on paper. The conversation teachers were more lax with the tonal pronunciation than the phonetic instructor was, and they let us use our hands to remind ourselves which tone we were speaking. When we memorized a vocabulary word, we would memorize the phonetic symbols, tones, and characters associated with it. As we began to speak, we would draw tone symbols in the air with our hands to help our listeners figure out which tone we were trying to produce. Since our minds were not yet differentiating the tones in the language that we were hearing, I guess that during our first few
months we were like deaf people learning to speak, and we used the crutch of sign language to facilitate communication. Our roommates, too, began to draw tones in the air when they had trouble communicating with us.

Here are some examples to show you our dilemma:

The syllable “ma” alone can have five different meanings depending on which tone is associated with it. First tone ma means mother, second tone ma means hemp, third tone ma means horse, and fourth tone ma means scold. When ma is used with the short, light tone, it is a question marker that has no independent meaning. There are thirty of the bo, po, mo fo syllables that can all be used singly as words, then they can make a seemingly infinite variety of combination single-syllable words, and each syllable changes its meaning with a new tone.

Most words in modern Chinese are of two syllables, and each syllable has its own tone. If you get the tones on one or both syllables wrong, you’ve got the wrong word. Hsi (3rd tone) le (4th tone) is joy. Hsi (3rd tone, different character) le (light tone) means washed. And if you throw poor enunciation into the mix, it‘s even harder to understand: ma (3rd tone) shang (4th tone) means immediately, but ma (2nd tone) sheng (3rd tone) means hemp rope. It took me almost six months before I could begin to correctly pick out words in the conversations going on around me. I had never been in a foreign country with no clues to my surroundings for that long. I felt lonely, isolated, stupid, and totally frustrated. I cried myself to sleep many, many nights during those first nine months. After I began to be able to correctly hear words, it took me still longer to speak correctly. Even today, my tones go out of whack when I switch too quickly from English to Chinese, and my brain gets stuck in English track where I don’t hear the tones in my mind.


Joannalynne said...

wow...very descriptive. I always wondered what it is like hearing chinese for the first time.

Teresa said...

If you are older than 5 or so, your brain has trained itself to ignore tones, so you have to force yourself to distinguish them. Fortunately, we don't use a large percentage of our grey matter, so even if the early childhood connections have atrophied, we can always make new connections given sufficient time and patience. Patience was never my strong suit, but I was determined to learn Chinese, so in the end, refusing to fail won out. Having a great teacher helped.

murat11 said...

This episode brings in even more forcefully your earlier descriptions of being led around like you were a toddler, with your many weeks of incomprehension. What incredible rigor (and humility) it built into you (though it seems that you had not been lacking in rigor, previously; this was rigor to the nth power).

I'm not even sure how to phrase my next thought from reading this. I'm just wondering about the differences in mind that are behind what seems a very different system of communication. Having been behind the green curtain of how it's done, how does - if it does - the language shape the psychology of the individuals? I'm also very curious about the "primordial" split between these differing language / "alphabet" systems, and how they evolved. Or am I reading too much into what I see as difference?

Teresa said...

Hi Murat,

Very incisive comments about the split between languages. I think there is a big cognitive difference in Chinese-speaking and English-speaking brains. I think that Chinese speakers who learn to read and write characters wind up with more connections between hemispheres because Chinese characters are an art form in themselves and require more right-brain activity, but since they are hooked to the symbolism of language, Chinese speakers have simulataneous left and right brained activity. I believe that this fact gives the Chinese a greater ability to see the contexts in life, the contradictions and such. This might be why they came up with philosophies that embrace and understand the yin and yang of cosmic existence. This is how they can think that the seed of yin is in yang, that the most extreme yang of necessity turns to yin.

If one's language is only cut and dried phonetics, spelled out correctly by a finite set of symbols with no real artistic merit, it seems that the brain runs more in its logical left groove, and the people become more dogmatic, less inclusive, and more apt to think in absolutes. This is why Westerners want to pursue Plato's "forms" and postulate that our heroes and heroines have a certain exquisite perfection, like Dante's Beatrice. If a hero has weakness with strength or shows strength in weakness, we call them anti-heroes or flawed heroes, as if they do not measure up to the ideal of the word "hero," but most Chinese heroes have flaws, the seed of yin hidden within their heroic yang. It is a requisite part of life.

I read a book about this last month, but I can't give you the citation off the top of my head. I will go look for it and come back to post it for you.


Teresa said...

Here is the information about the book on the different psychology of speakers of Asian languages and speakers of European languages. It was very interesting.

Nisbett, Richard E.

murat11 said...

Teresa: Thank you very much; this was exactly what I was looking for. Your thoughts about the differences and how they play out both philosophically and in the day to day are very interesting. So, too, were your thoughts of how learning Chinese enhances the hemispheric connections. Just as a point of interest, I'm wondering if you've seen any liabilities to the language and its structure. I'd almost be willing to bet that, based upon what you've said, Chinese (and other similar languages) could be seen as a "higher" form of thought / communication.

I'm curious, too, about the historical linguistic tributaries that developed (I'm sure it's not just a polarity of east and west) and what facilitated their structures.

Thanks for running down Nisbett's book title for me. I've got some fun reading ahead of me...

Teresa said...

There is a short-coming in the Chinese mind: too much attention to context and an inability to cut through the details to the core issues. Also I think that since they are not linear thinkers, they tend to get stuck more easily in the status quo, thinking that things "are just this way." Westerners, on the other hand, because they do hold to a perfect ideal can take that as a goal and can break out of a mold more easily. Is this a good thing? Well, certainly a lot of our technological advances have come from Westerners seeking improvement and perfection. Of course, the Western inability to see the whole picture beyond that one "form" has led to many unforeseen consequences. But after all those years of doing laundry on a washboard, I have to say that I am a fan of technology. I think there is a bit of Maslow's hierarchy in there. With technology, the world of arts and esoteric thought is available to people much lower on the economic scale because they do not need to spend so much time in the nitty gritty of staying alive. But I believe there needs to be a balance.

Nisbett gets into this a lot. It is hard for graduate students from Asia who learned English too late to do the analysis that they need for their research. Some can learn it later; others can't. I have found this among my Asian classmates in my Master's program at Cal State Long Beach last semester.

Nisbett also noted that bilingual speakers of Asian and Western languages, like people who grew up in Hong Kong and Macao or Asian-Americans who are truly fluent in both languages can be cued to which cognitive framework they will use to solve a certain problem. It's all in the language used with them before the test and what they talk about.

Apparently, much of the Asian cognitive cues are due to the societal emphasis on relationships and family from the influence of Confucianism. Now which came first, the chicken or the egg, meaning did Confucius say what he said because he spoke an early from of Chinese or did Chinese develop as a language because its speakers had bought into Confucianism, is something that is probably lost in the mists of time. You may need to invent a time machine and take yourself back to answer that last question...