The Approximate Word: Learning Chinese at Home in Beijing


I am a master of no language but my native English, although I have tried and am trying to learn other languages. The French I studied in high school is all but forgotten, as is the semester I took of Italian in college, while Spanish, my main romance language now, has become dominant. Being married to a Spaniard, whose parents don’t speak English, and who speaks almost exclusively to our children in Spanish, my comprehension of the language has improved over the years. While I’ve never really studied it formally, I’m able to communicate in the three main tenses with a limited number of useful verbs and have become familiar with a range of everyday, household nouns. Listening to Manu talk to the kids, I’ve also become quite intimate with a number of imperatives ( ¡No tires las cosas! [Don’t throw things!];  ¡Ven aqui ahora mismo! [Come here right now!];  ¡Dame un beso! [Give me a kiss!];  etc.). (I think I’ve come to understand a lot of the basics of interacting in Spanish with three young children!)

As for non-romance languages, the language I’ve studied the most is Tibetan. During my years in grad school, I had the chance to study spoken Tibetan abroad for three summers, one in Darjeeling, India and two in Lhasa. I never became very good at speaking (although I could use multiple verb forms and had a growing vocabulary, the sentence structure and tricky verbal endings are extremely different from English) and instead came to pride myself in my abilities with literary Tibetan, very different from the colloquial language, accepting that I was a person who felt more comfortable pouring over various dictionaries and struggling with Tibetan’s elusive particles than trying to have lengthy conversations with people. I found the same pleasure in learning and attempting to translate Sanskrit and in the process remembered that I also loved that one year of Latin I took in high school (why hadn’t I figured out how to get those other two years to fit into my schedule?! Maybe I would have been a classics minor in college!).

Then there were the years that we lived in Nepal and travelled regularly within India, Tibet, and Bhutan. Manu and I both studied some Nepali and learned a little, but never really embraced it, as we spent more time each semester outside of Nepal than at our home in Kathmandu. Although we regularly interacted with Tibetan speakers, I often fell back into English because my Tibetan was often less good than others’ English, or at least that’s what I told myself. Incidentally, when we returned to Lhasa a couple of months ago, I was happy to find that the Tibetan basics were still there (once I shoved aside the Spanish that was more often on the tip of my tongue) and that I could understand and be understood on a simple level (sadly, this will probably be the pinnacle of my ability to speak Tibetan!).

In contrast, when we first arrived in Beijing at the end of January, I was at an absolute loss. Aside from “ni hao” (hello), I knew how to say nothing. There are no cognates between Mandarin and English, so I couldn’t even begin to guess at what I was hearing. Since most of my time over these months was to be focused on taking care of the kids while Manu carried out research, the only opportunity I saw for me to learn some Chinese was to find a language partner. Fortunately, a friend found one for me and Zhiyan and I met regularly twice a week after the kids were in bed, one session focusing on English and the other on Chinese, over the next four months.

While I haven’t been the best student (even with the little free time I have, I’ve found that sitting down and studying Mandarin has ranked third in my choices of things to do, behind writing this blog and reading China-related books), I can communicate a little bit and can understand a little too. I have resolutely ignored Chinese characters, as it would involve hours and hours of memorization without helping me in any way to learn how to pronounce the word. Instead, I’ve focused on the pin-yin, which is the Romanized way of writing Chinese and includes the four tonal markings.

Okay, so everyone talks about Chinese tones and how difficult they can be. People often say that they’re not musical, so learning tones are even harder for them. While I don’t know the degree to which musical abilities and speaking in a tonal language are actually linked, I’ve found that my ability to approximate language (i.e. inability to get the exact right word, but to still be understood) has created a handicap when attempting to speak Chinese. This realization just occurred to me the other day when 21 month old Isabel raised her arm, asking for my “hee.” Of course I understood that she meant “hand,” and happily held hers as I thought about the various approximations she makes in English that have become perfectly understandable to me (“bia” for bagel; “shoo” for shoe, juice, and suit; “nur” for nurse; etc.).

Learning language, even as an adult, at least for me, also involves approximating words. Sometimes I picture a written word in my head (why am I so dependent on spellings!?), but somehow it comes out differently. Or sometimes the word I pictured is the wrong spelling, which is why it comes out wrong when I say it. Usually context helps and the person I’m talking to seems to get what I’m trying to say. In Chinese, I can picture the spelling of a word, but I also need to remember which of four tones the word is, an added layer that often gets confused as I attempt, for example, to make my voice rise from low to high (like the way we slide our voice upward in English to ask, “what?”) to get the word out in tone two. As an example of how tones make a difference, depending on which of the four tones is used, the word “tang” can mean “soup,” “sugar,” “to lie down,” or “too hot.” This is not easy at all.

Not only are the tones tough, but the basic sounds in Mandarin involve moving the tongue to different parts of the mouth to make various consonant sounds, some of which we don’t even have in English. I recently found this out the hard way when I asked for “zhu rou,” which means “pork-meat.” Since the “zh” sound entails pushing a “j” sound out with your tongue curled up on the mid-point of the roof of your mouth, I sloppily said something that sounded more like “shu rou” (how’s that for approximation?). Later I found out why the server laughed at me: “shu rou” means “mouse-meat”! While eating mouse in China is not out of the question, it’s definitely not what I was looking for at that restaurant.

I’ve found that there are a few simple things about learning Chinese, which have given me relief. For one, sentences are spoken like they are in English with the basic subject-verb-object structure. Further, verbs are the same whether in the past, present, or future, a huge advantage over trying to learn charts of verbs and their differences with the various persons in romance languages. My greatest relief, though, has been to find that in Chinese you really only need to know how to count from one to ten. After that the numbers easily build on each other and there’s no need to learn silly words, such as the equivalent of “thirteen” and “thirty” (which I’ve found can be particularly tough to differentiate for non-native English speakers).

With less than two months left in Beijing, I don’t expect to make much more progress in speaking Chinese during this stay, especially since my “formal” training is over. My language partner has finished his MA degree and has just left Beijing to begin his new, highly coveted government job working for the propaganda department in the western autonomous region of Xinjiang (in another context I would probably never have met and become friends with someone who believes wholeheartedly in the Chinese communist party and what it can do for China and its people). The regular in-depth conversations we had in English were elucidating for both of us and it seems that we both have a greater understanding of and appreciation for the other and our respective countries, even though our views are to a large degree very different. When I really comes down to it, becoming friends with Zhiyan has been more rewarding and valuable to me than my efforts to speak approximate Chinese. Still, I’ve got seven more weeks to keep trying.



5 responses »

  1. Very interesting! Once again, your blog inspires me to write something similar on my own. But I am still trying to produce an article about German schools, so German language will be indefinitely postponed.

    • I’ll be eager to read it when you do! I don’t know how you’ve been doing it, but I’ve found that having a number of posts that I’m working on/will write in the future lined up in OneNote has been really helpful. I can dump ideas in the various sections and when I sit down to write, it usually doesn’t take too long to come together.

    • Oh, thanks, Susan! What a nice thought! We’re ready to come home too, but still have things to wrap up here (especially Manu), so I think we’ll actually be coming back at the right time: exactly seven weeks from today! Can’t wait to see you and to dance with you soon afterwards!!!! xxoo

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