We’re spending 3 weeks this summer on holiday in China. As soon as Helen suggested it we both immediately agreed it would be China this year. Plans are firming up – we’ll fly into Beijing, then move on down to Xi’ian, then a round trip ending up in Shanghai that’ll see us taking bus trips, one sleeper train and two internal flights.
Of course we know hardly anything about the country and we don’t speak the language. I’m trying to remedy this. Stacked up on my Kindle already are:
- What Does China Think?
- Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong
- The Analects (Confucius)
- The Book of Chuang Tzu
- Tao Te Ching
- Behind The Wall (Thubron)
- China: A History
…and I’m very much enjoying the Thubron at the moment. And I’ve started learning Mandarin.
There are two main problems for a westerner learning Mandarin. The alphabet, of course, which is not an alphabet but, I think, a ‘syllabary’, a huge barrier to learning and beginners like me have to rely on Pinyin, a Romanisation of Mandarin. The other big problem is that the language is tonal, with each syllable being expressible in 5 different ways – 4 standard tones and an ‘untoned’ version, with the added complication of ‘tone sandhi’ – variation of tones in response to other nearby tones.
The grammar’s pretty simple, with verbs not varying according to tense, gender etc, but with the use of ‘particles’ instead to mark tense, interrogatives and suchlike.
I’m using two podcast series. Serge Melnyk’s excellent Mandarin Chinese Lessons and Chris Parker’s Survive in Chinese. I’ve been motoring pretty well with Melnyk until recently when I seemed to hit a barrier. I just couldn’t get the vocabulary to stick or even understand some of the dialogue. So I’ve taken to writing out the conversations and creating Pleco flashcards for each podcast.
To help with the reading and writing Helen bought me a copy of the beautiful and fun Chineasy bu tI’ve just realised that it teaches Tradtional characters, which are used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, rather than Simplified characters, which are the mainstay these days on the mainland.
I’ve no idea if I’ll persevere and no idea either of how much I’ll be able to speak by the time we fly out but it’s fun so far and I always like to have a stab at speaking the language of the country I’m in. I have half a mind to keep it up when we return