11 June 2003 2003 nian 6 yue 11 hao

Journal: A Friendly Lesson

Being a foreigner in China is enough to attract stares, and from children even gaping mouths sometimes. Being able to speak a bit of the language makes me even more of a rarity. I remember saying "No need for a bag," in one supermarket, and being complimented on my Chinese. Earlier this week I spoke a few sentences of Chinese in class, because I had something important to say and I wanted to grab the attention of all the tuned-out students attending my lecture. That earnt me a roomful of applause.

The truth is, you could read words from the page of a phrasebook and still hear the generic "You speak very well!" I only get a buzz from a more specific compliment, such as "Your pronunciation is very good". Chinese is very difficult for native English speakers to pronounce, so intelligible pronunciation from a foreigner is the thing most likely to cause surprise. When Wang Xin, who loves to laugh at over-formal, old-fashioned, or bookish expressions that I use, told me that my pronunciation of the four tones in Mandarin was quite good, I started to believe it. Students sometimes say that my pronunciation is very "standard". This seemed like an odd comment at first, but remember that each area in China has its own local dialect, so "standard" pronunciation is something that most students themselves have had to cultivate during their earlier education.

To recap, my pronunciation is better than most foreigners. Well, you'd hope so after more than three years of learning the language. But I was about to find out that "better than most foreigners" is still far from perfect.

I was having lunch with Jackie last week, and out of the blue he suddenly announced that it was time to do something about my foreign accent. "Okay," I said, "What's my biggest problem?" He showed me by repeating this sentence back with an imitation of my accent. It certainly sounded weird! Perhaps he was exaggerating slightly, but I think I understand what the problem is. I don't pronounce each syllable crisply enough, instead stringing them together so that my tones are less distinct, my accent sounds whiny, and my rhythm sounds irregular. He drilled me on that sentence, "What's my biggest problem?", a dozen times or so.

Yesterday he dropped another bombshell. It was after hearing me say Chi bao le, "I'm full". Apparently my pronunciation of the third tone sounds like the second tone instead. I have a vague idea of why this might be, but I can't even hear it in my own speech yet, so this problem may prove even more challenging than last week's. After repeating "I'm full" twenty times, I still couldn't say it properly.

Now I'm a bit embarrassed about speaking Chinese at all, since even "hello" contains the third tone! But I'm really glad that somebody has told me at last, and explained specifically what the problem is. I guess that's what friends are for. Jackie has even offered to record some sentences onto tape after his exams are finished, which he dubs "Crazy Chinese" (after Li Yang's famous Crazy English movement). Why do languages have to be so difficult to learn?


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