You might assume that as a language of pictograms, Chinese would have no acronyms. I always did. Turns out I was wrong. Chinese has a cleverly simple way to create standard abbreviations even with no phonetic alphabet.
I’ve been studying Khmer – the ninth language I’ve studied in a classroom. These days both English and Chinese grammar feel natural to me – neither is awkward. But Khmer falls so in between that I get confused. The feeling that I’m mixing two individually comfortable but different grammars gets me all turned around!
Of the three tonal languages I’ve studied Mandarin has the easiest tones to learn. What most English speakers don’t realise is that we also use tones every day! We use a rising tone to turn a statement into a question. One of the best examples I can think of to explain is the word “okay”.
To learn language well means going beyond translating English thoughts into Chinese, instead expressing myself in wholly Chinese thoughts – to see the world through that lens. To not be chained to “front” as “future” and “behind” as “past”.
Two of the first characters Chinese children are taught to write in school are 上 and 下. Both words are used all day, every day, in many different ways. 上 is on, over, above, up; 下 is under, below, down. But wait, there’s more!
Imagine you are at a party at someone’s house when suddenly a house plant starts talking to you. Perhaps you would ignore it, ask if the person next to you heard it, or try talking back while laughing at the situation. I am that house plant.
A large part of cultivating Good China Days is changing assumptions and expectations. Here are a bunch of things that help me adjust my attitude toward China – and create space for days that make me love this country, and its people.
In English we use “please” a lot. Use it and you’re polite. Don’t and you’re rude. So an English speaker learns the word 请 [qǐng], often translated “please”, and starts throwing it around in Chinese. Problem is, that’s not how Chinese use 请.
Many of the simple words one relies upon in one’s native language don’t exist in other languages – not in the form one is accustomed to. For example, in China it’s uncommon to say 谢谢 when the person is doing something they are paid for.
怎么 [zěnme] is a great word because it is so useful. I love that something simple on the surface contains great subtlety, and learning to communicate implied messages simply and fluently – like a Chinese – not spelling it out – like a westerner.
Many foreigners have had the experience of asking for 水 shuǐ and receiving a blank stare. The problem is that “water” doesn’t mean in Chinese what it means in English. Chinese don’t just ask for 水, they specify what kind of 水!
Mandarin Chinese has no true equivalents for the English words “yes” and “no”. Although at first it seems complicated (“why can’t they just say yes and no?!”) once you understand it, Mandarin allows for a wide range of subtle responses.