Learn a new language-- If You Dare

March, 2002


Greetings, Vocabulary builders!

Just when you thought is was safe to open your e-mail......
Be very careful... if you leave your mind open..... you MIGHT learn something.

high velocity verbosity for mobile maniacs.

I am a business traveler. I travel overseas. This fact is especially frightening to those who knew me as an adolescent. (Look up the word 'obnoxious' in your dictionary. If it is an older edition, it may mention me
by name). But the Creator has seen fit to make me into a 'business ambassador' of sorts, as my company is opening up a factory in mainland China, and I have been and will be making trips to the new plant. Or should I say 'new planet.'

In order to further international relations by self-humiliation, I decided to enroll into a continuing education class to speak the official language of mainland China, which is Mandarin Chinese - which is a far cry from the universal language- otherwise known as 'Broken English.' Over a period of six weeks, I learned enough Mandarin so that if I use some hand gestures and grunt slowly, I can get the idea across that I am totally clueless. For those of you who are laughing at me right now, laughing because you have many years' study and are fluent in the 'romance languages' (French, Spanish, Greek, Russian, Swahili, conversational Latin, etc) I have a bit of news for you. It aint gonna help you-- no way --no how. You have to start over again, and after a few hours of instruction, your tongue and jaw inside your mouth are going to be sore enough to feel like they belong to somebody else. You are going to make sounds that violate nearly every rule that you ever imagined to apply to Western speech. You are a 'hopeless romantic'.
     Western languages are 'melodic'-- the words flow like a boat gliding down a river-- and voice tones are used to convey emotion. Oriental languages use tones as part of the enunciation of each word- making words seem to flow together like a set of freight cars banging around in a railroad yard. Because it is tonal, the Mandarin language is about as melodic as a sewing machine. Each word is a single syllable, but can have four different meanings, corresponding to whichever of the four tones is spoken. For example: 'ni hao' means 'hello'. But, depending upon which tone you use, 'Ni hao ma' can mean either 'how are you' or 'how is your horse'. This makes communication interesting --and disconcerting. 

The method used to teach me to speak Mandarin is called 'buhpuhmuhfuh'. (I am not kidding about this) The first four consonant sounds in Mandarin are buh, puh, muh and fuh, and this method is used to teach preschoolers to speak and read the language. The most difficult sound for me to make was 'tchee'. This is most easily accomplished by saying 'she' after having the tip of your tongue glued to the roof of your mouth and your jaw wired shut. I tried to skip the hard work by buying a phrase book with Americanized pronunciations of Mandarin words. It comes across like Chinese Ebonics. I am afraid that if I use that thing to ask for directions, the mainlanders will grunt and point me back to the airport.
      But we are learning. 'We' being all of us- Wendy, Peter, James and I. We need to learn pretty quickly, because ----- WE ARE ALL GOING TO CHINA! (for a visit, that is). My next business trip to China will involve the whole family. Wendy and I want the boys to learn about world cultures and people. It is pretty impressive to have a seven year old and a nine year old spouting Chinese phrases at their school bus stop. They are also learning some important Chinese characters such as 'man' and 'woman'. This will help immensely with the PRC (Public Restroom Challenge) 

Finally, as a service to all you Read & Delete subscribers, I have included this handy guide of useful Mandarin phrases which may help you out during a quick visit to Shanghai or Beijing.

1. boo dwee ch-fan sh-woo hwun-mee le 
(I can't eat this. It's not dead.)

2. Wo gay nee chian, nee ting gen-dsong wo?
(If I give you money, will you stop following me?)

3. shao-dung wo-de pee-jio, piao-liarng nu-de. Jao wo.
(Hold my beer, (honey). Watch me do this)

4. Wo chee-dian-chwann ba-boo-kai dian-tee
(My hovercraft is stuck in the elevator)

5. Wo yao ju-boo ma-dswee
(I want a local anesthetic)

6. Wo foo-jwarng dsai na-r?
(Where are my clothes?)

7. Gong-shee nee! Nee shu-ho-shwee yong
(Congratulations! Your after-shave is working!)

8. Man-dian! Nee shuo-hwaa shiao-sho gay wo pian-to-tong
(Slow down! Your sales presentation is giving me a migraine!)

9. Nee buo tsuo hao-ma le
(You have dialed the wrong number) This is especially useful - considering
that you can use this phrase on telemarketers here in the USA!

10. Nee boo dwee dsen-me dso tsong jer-r.
(You can't get there from here.)

These phrases are as accurate as I can translate from my Chinese dictionary,
and if you are involved in a situation where you actually need to use any of
them.... boy are you in trouble!

Gotta go.... time for more cross-cultural commuting!