中国普通话 — The Mandarin Chinese Tongue
A year and a half ago I ended up at a Chinese-American company in Waltham called The Cambridge Institute of International Education. My coworker Minna needed a ride in to work and I started driving her every morning in my beat-up minivan. The first time she asked if I needed money for the rides I said, let’s make a deal: instead of money, how about for 30 minutes a day you teach me Mandarin. Minna was endlessly patient, and entertained mountains (山) of aimless questions. I had no framework at the time and was not actively teaching myself besides those car rides, so it was truly just for fun.
Jump-cut to today — It has been a year since I worked at the Cambridge Institute, but not a day has passed since then that I have not thought about learning Mandarin. I teach myself through online coursework and apps, physical small-group classes, and my girlfriend and I practice Chinese in our free time. Over the past year I have learned so much, and in this post I want to tell you a little bit about why I have enjoyed the process so much.
The first thing I love is that Mandarin is a foreign language with different underlying patterns and rules. I have learned other languages and I can say without hesitation that Mandarin the most “foreign” relative to my native tongue. The grammar patterns, the tones, the phonetic and morphemic structures are all deeply unique. In English, spoken words carry meaning, and written words exist to represent spoken words. In other words the ideological building blocks of English live in spoken language. The letters in the word “explosion”, for example, don’t really carry any meaning in english except to phonetically spell out the sound of the word explosion, and the meaning is only stored in the final word.
In Mandarin, the ideological building blocks live in the written language.
The written word for explosion in Mandarin is 爆炸, made up of 爆 (the character for explode) and 炸 (the character for blast). Both of these characters have their own meaning and can be broken down even further into the symbols that compose them. 火, for example is the symbol for fire and is included in both characters. What this means is that you can’t truly understand the spoken language without knowing the character system it is built upon.
The second reason I love Mandarin is it provides a window into a new and ancient culture. I love the moments when I come across something that tells me a little bit about the lifestyle or mindset that created the language. For example, I learned the characters starting with the pictographic ones (those that look like what they mean) and saw a ton of little clues about the ancient origins of the language. For example huo (伙) means “group” and is a pictogram of a person standing over a fire. This character hearkens back to the days when a fire literally was a tool around which groups would unify. The character for “not yet “is lai (未) and represents a tree that has not yet finished growing. Each little discovery like this makes me progressively more curious to get familiar with the modern version of the culture that I am learning about.
Finally, I like Mandarin because it is really hard. I can’t stress the impact of this one enough. I personally don’t get excited by easy problems, so having a language that is so deep and complex is incredibly important for my learning process. You know how in english we have like three words where the same word can mean two different things? “Tear and tear” comes to mind, but there sure aren’t a ton of them. Mandarin has hundreds, so they separated them out into four tones — and EVEN THAT is not enough. Even the exact same syllable pronounced with the exact same tone can mean two different things based on context. Cóng and công, for example, mean completely different things. The former means “from” or “to follow”, while the latter means “clever”. Cóng (with the exact same syllable and tone) can mean unyielding, or a long slender piece of jade. The rote difficulty of learning Chinese makes it really interesting.
I love Mandarin because I love uncovering patterns and learning about cultures outside my own. I also like approaching hard problems, and the Chinese language is one of the hardest problems that I have come across so far.