In my last post I introduced THIRTY common words all pronounced “shi”. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that with so many homophones, Mandarin has some fantastic tongue-twisters. And by “fantastic” I mean “utterly impossible to recite”.
Today I’m going to introduce you to words pronounced “shi” – a great example of the wonderful confusion that is homophones in Mandarin. There are TWO HUNDRED characters for the sound “shi”and I use at least 30 of them. They are split up between different tones, but still that’s a whole lot of shi.
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”.
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.
I took a job in Langfang, a small city between Beijing and Tianjin, and my Chinese rose to a new level. I was often the only English speaker in the open office area where my desk was. Eavesdropping became a great language learning tool.
I studied Chinese in school for over ten years, the final year being at a Chinese university in Beijing. All this did NOT make me fluent. It didn’t make me sound Chinese. So what did? Talking to lots of people – especially taxi drivers.
I am often asked how I learned Mandarin Chinese. The short answer is good fortune and hard work. When I arrived in Beijing I could already read and write Chinese pretty well. Listening comprehension, however, took me a long time.