Learning Chinese 學中文

C-M Transition

Originally posted at my other blog, but highly relevant here, on December 19, 2009.


Have I told you yet about that funny, funny episode when I endeavoured to formally learn Mandarin a few years ago?

Vancouver, being the special city it is, commonly offers two flavours of introductory Mandarin classes. The first is that class where on day one, you learn basics like sounding out “bo po mo fo” and how to count; students start knowing nothing about the Chinese language. The second type of course is named something like “Introduction to Mandarin for Cantonese Speakers” where it is assumed you have a firm grasp of the Chinese because you are a “heritage student”, as UBC puts it.1

Of course I was somewhat snooty about being able to take the latter course. After all, my mother made a lot of effort to teach me Chinese speaking, reading and writing with handmade flash cards and then she purchased volumes and volumes of bedtime stories and readers when we summered in Hong Kong. One of those summers, I even had a Beijing-trained Mandarin tutor for private lessons–and while I was a straight-A student back in Halifax, I was a shameful delinquent when it came to summer classes!2

As far as I could tell, nearly everyone in my elite intro class had grown up in Hong Kong. Only one person looked like she had grown up here but had spend more/intense time studying Chinese than I had. In the beginning, we all blared out Mandarin so badly, Cantonese-accent tinged and slurring the Cantonese words to form Mandarin ones when we weren’t sure. We were not very communicative. Then, one day, with just three more agonizing classes to go, my classmates made a breakthrough. They learned a secret, it seemed, paired with their formal education back in Hong Kong, and they were Mandarin-speakers overnight. Meanwhile, I had learned in principle the difference (but not quite how to pronounce) between similar sounds (z/zh and sh/x/s) in the pinyin system–whoop-dee-doo.

From years of self-study and all those other lessons, I know that a very common word such as “what” has experienced a large divergence between Cantonese and Mandarin. In colloquial Cantonese, “what” is “màt yé3 but I know that the Cantonese pronunciation of the written form, “sɐm mɔ”4 does not sound that different from the Mandarin pronunciation, “shé me”. “Why” and “who” are other common words that have diverged along with countless other words and expressions.

By the nature of having learned Cantonese just to communicate with parents and relatives, my Cantonese education consists mostly of colloquial vocabulary. My classmates had as much difficulty as I had getting their tongues around “zh” and “r” because our natural Cantonese tongues’ tendencies tried to prevail. But they can naturally switch over to the formal vocabulary, something I do slowly or not at all. Afterall, there is definitely a split-second translation going on for even the most familiar words

Them: Hear something in Mandarin >> Translate to Cantonese (formal) >> Understanding

Me: Hear something in Mandarin — Translate to Cantonese (formal) —  Translate to Cantonese (colloquial) — Understanding

Sometime in my late twenties, I pretty much gave up the notion of being able to speak the language (too old to pick up a new language, haha) but I still hold it  a goal to understand what is being spoken around me.. otherwise, I’d be that unwitted dunce, right?

As such, I’ve collected ideas and the like over the years for ways to sneak in some education when we’re all way too busy pursuing other goals (like rocking our jobs).

  • ChinesePod is a tremendous resource for people who want to learn to speak and understand, de-emphasizing the reading and writing side of things. Since I did not commit to a paid subscription package ($9+/mo.) I am confined to “Newbie”-level lessons. In any case, their teaching principle is to teach “high-frequency phrases” because it is true that many Chinese words hardly mean much alone and it’s context and phrases and a good start is to know the most commonplace things people you talk to will say in return. I’m not the best study at this, but I think I have learned very, very well one often-used expression, “bù gao su nǐ!”, meaning “It’s none of your business!”
  • Replace: I envision gradually replacing English (or Cantonese) with the equivalent in Mandarin, and it would occur in waves. I no longer say, “I don’t know” but instead “wǒ bù zhī dào”; and I say that a lot! Food, numbers (prices, phone numbers), common verbs, common locations (school, work, bathroom, etc.), clothing, sensations (hot, cold, tired, happy). A few phrases I’ve adopted (to sound like a complete snot) are wèishéme (“Why?”), shéme (“What? Pardon?”), and zhēnde (“Really?!”). Two expressions I struggle with because they are “backwards” from Cantonese and I have many occasions to say are, méiyǒu (“I don’t have it.”) and bùyào (“I don’t want it!”)
  • Movies and television shows: I’m not sure where to get episodes of Friends dubbed (well) into Mandarin, but those would be great. Inspired by a Sinosplice suggestion, I bought Ponyo with Cantonese and Mandarin tracks to first familiarize myself with the story, then watch/listen to it over and over again in Mandarin. Chinese soap operas are finite and it is not expensive to pick up an entire series (like The Speech of Silence) and you can watch those to learn from listening to both Chinese audio tracks.
  • As mentioned above/below, learning songs is a fantastic way to learn a language. I used to learn the chorus (at the very least) of my favourite HK and Taiwanese pop ballads. A less daunting task (than listening to Asian pop, oy) is to learn the simple lyrics to favourites well-known in English, like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. On another note slightly unrelated and pertains to Cantonese and not Mandarin, I enjoy when a track from Jin’s Cantonese rap album, ABC, comes up on my MP3 player–I learn or re-inforce some vocabulary with each listen.


1 There is only one system of writing in Chinese but Mandarin and Cantonese speakers will pronounce the same name word differently. It is also true that in spoken Cantonese, a second, colloquial version for many words and expressions have come about that does not have a proper written character. Alas, Mandarin is not simply Cantonese slurred; however, since they have a common root, knowing the Cantonese pronunciation is often a memory trick for many Mandarin pronunciations.

2 My other training in the language includes self-study that I conducted the summer between grades 11 and 12 when I made up my mind to speak Chinese again and I filled out engineering grid pads full of repetitively written characters. And then there was that crazy five-year period where I was just nuts about HK pop music and superficially studied the Cantonese and Mandarin lyrics for my favourite ballads.

3 Pronunciation system used in Lonely Planet Cantonese phrasebook–I love that little volume.

4 Standard dictionary pronunciation symbols found in the dictionary–used in the Chinese-Chinese dictionary we picked up in HK.

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