Mar 2nd, 2002, 03:25 AM
mark m
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I am studying Mandarin in expectation of a trip to china in 2003. While it is complex (because of the Tones), It does not seem to me to be unattainable to learn enough to travel about. However, I keep reading about peoples attempts and how their pronunciation is useless and comical to native speakers. Is it really that bad all over, and am I wasting my time? In the past I have learned sufficient Greek, Spanish, and Tagalog to at least break the ice (for those trips) Chinese any different?
Mar 2nd, 2002, 09:03 AM
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chinese can be tricky because of its tonality. as you already know, words spoken with a different inflection can mean something completely different. but most mainland chinese i know are very appreciative of foreigners who make an attempt to learn and speak the language.

if you're looking for a self-study course in mandarin, some of my friends have recommended the pimsleur course.
Mar 2nd, 2002, 10:27 AM
Peter Neville-Hadley
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Learning Chinese is much the same as learning the other languages. So few Chinese speak anything other than their native dialect and Modern Standard Mandarin that they often particularly appreciate your efforts, although they then also often recognise a rare opportunity to get some insight into fabled foreign lands from the horse's mouth.

Assuming you've mastered the tones, the most common reaction of ordinary Chinese to your first simple phrase is, "Eh? How come you speak such good Mandarin?" And this is before you've said much more than "Hello". Their world-picture doesn't include the idea of Mandarin issuing from any faces which don't look like their own.

In its strongest form this amounts to a mental inability to recognise that it's Mandarin that you're speaking. On an average trip I'll find at least one or two occasions when someone's response to a query is to look embarrassed, amused, or condescendingly superior, and to turn to someone else and say, "Eh, Lao Wang. I don't speak English. What's he saying?"

The usual assumption of the visitor is that he or she has got his tones wrong again, but this is a problem even the most fluent speaker comes across occasionally. It never occurs if you first speak to someone who is looking in a different direction.

One receptionist, though, looked thoroughly perplexed when I asked for the price of a standard room. She hunted about until she found pencil and paper, wrote down a price, and then showed it to me. She had understood me perfectly well, and had responded to my query, but not at the same time been able to overcome her conviction that she couldn't understand me because I was foreign. "Can't you speak Mandarin?" I asked her. "Of course I can," she said, startled, and from then on we had no problems.

You'll perhaps discover that you become very fluent with a few phrases you frequently use, such as, "How much is a room?" And once the receptionists have been through at least some of the litany common to most exchanges with Chinese, and in which you'll also become fluent (How come you speak such good Chinese? What country are you from? How old are you? What do you do? How much do you earn? Are you married? How many children? Etc.), will then fail to make any allowance for your foreign-ness whatsoever, and become puzzled when you don't understand the high-speed and perhaps slang-riddled phrases they then go on to use.

The other side of the same coin is a complete refusal to accept that someone obviously of Chinese descent, but perhaps brought up overseas, cannot understand Mandarin--it may take several repetitions of "I don't speak Mandarin" before it's believed. And even then it will be continuously forgotten.

It's perfectly possible to travel throughout China independently without knowing a word of Mandarin, and most independent travellers do exactly that. But even a few phrases can be very useful, as I discovered on my first visit to China after only a few lessons. And as you should be now have discovered, although Chinese requires a few noises not used in English, and at first it should be almost sung rather than spoken until the tones come more naturally (don't let any teacher let you be lazy about this in the early days), its grammar is startlingly easy, and given the lack of tenses, genders, or the need to conjugate verbs at all, early progress can be made more rapidly than with European languages. So stick with it. However good you get many in China will only ever pity you for whatever's left that you don't understand. But in most cases these days you'll be given credit for massive intelligence if you can only speak a few phrases, and your efforts will be appreciated, and of great use to you.

Peter N-H
Mar 2nd, 2002, 03:33 PM
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Thank you very, very much for your replies. MOST Helpful!

FYI, I have been very impressed with the language products at

Mark M.
Mar 2nd, 2002, 04:45 PM
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The problem is not with the tones so much as with the different dialects spoken throughout China. Yes, Mandarin is the official language but it is spoken with a different accent in each province. Not unlike in the US, think Texas, North Dakota, New England accents as opposed to what you hear on the evening news - it can sound quite different. I speak Mandarin fluently and had some difficulty at times (I learned in Taiwan). Also I noticed there were some contractions used in various places that I wasn't familiar with and it took me a while to understand what was being said. This is not so much the case with hotel or other hospitality industry staff as they will try to speak Mandarin in it's "correct" form (if there is such a thing), but rather in places where there's less daily tourist contact. IMO it's not as much of a problem with understanding your Mandarin (that's assuming you get the tones down) but more of a problem with you understanding the reply. That doesn't mean you shouldn't attempt it - it does help to know a few basic phrases and is appreciated.

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