Highly Developed Linguistic Skills

Chinese 101: There are four tones when speaking Mandarin. These tones are crucial because depending on the tone one uses the sentence will have a whole different meaning. For instance, the verbs “to buy” and “to sell” are written and pronounced the exact same way: “mai”; even their respective characters are very similar (买 and 卖). Only the intonation will let a Chinese interlocutor know which term one is referring to.

In my opinion, the only thing harder than writing Chinese is getting those tones right. Surprisingly though, I never had to worry about tones until the end of my 4th semester of Chinese (CHI 202). While it was one less thing on my workload for me to worry about, I do regret that tones weren’t emphasized and here’s why: many times when speaking Chinese, I know exactly what word to use and how to pronounce it (and even write it). But when I say it, my tones are off and my interlocutor will not understand what I’m talking about, lest I pull out my iPhone and let him or her read the word. And I hate doing that for reasons I’ll explain further on.

I have however found a way around this. I noticed that people here speak really fast, the same way we [unconsciously] speak english really fast. I thought to myself: “there’s absolutely no way they’re speaking that fast and pronouncing every single tone correctly.” So I tried something. Instead of speaking at a regular speed, I talk as fast as I can. The reasoning behind this is that the less time I spend on a word, the less time I have to emphasize the tone. How is that working out for me? I’d say pretty well: I started that last week and I feel like my linguistic skills are improving even faster. A good indicator is that I haven’t had to pull out my iPhone out as much. And I don’t know to what extent this theory is farfetched but I feel like the constant pressure I’m putting on my brain to express itself in Chinese at a fast pace, is making it amalgamate every available resource it has in order to meet my demand for Chinese that it [normally] cannot supply. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you but it simply means that my being immerged in this environment is helping me improve my Chinese exponentially:

I was at the gym yesterday and a girl told me that she was working out because her boyfriend said “her behind was too round”. If you know me well enough you can probably imagine the look on my face upon hearing that nonsense (her behind was… beautiful, to say the least). I had the moral obligation to advise her to move to the States where I assured her, It would be extremely well received. That earned me a playful, but strong slap to the face followed by a long laugh (and a lot of stares from the gymaholics who had tripled their efforts upon her arrival). This was significant to me because for the first time, I made someone laugh and it wasn’t because I’m black; all this in Chinese and… without my iPhone.

While I’m still far away from dreaming in Chinese the way I do in French, English and Comorian (my 3 maternal languages), I’m hoping this deep immersion in Shanghai will get me past the 5-year-level of Spanish I have, to the point where I can practice my favorite hobby: making fun of people. Until then, I’ll just keep using Chinese as much as I can.

To find out why I don’t like pulling out my iPhone, please read my next post here.

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