Illiterate At Best

I’ve hit a frustrating plateau with my Chinese-speaking. When I speak, I give the tones a good shot, and hope for the best. If I can’t get the tone of “glass” right, hopefully the rest of the sentence, usually “I’d like one of beer” will make my meaning clear. Unfortunately, my vocab’s hitting a point where I really need to get a handle on the tones. I’m hearing word combinations that sound just like homonyms of other word combos, and I’m left wondering if the waitress has just offered us eggplants or forks.

I truly appreciate it when speakers go out of their way to make their pronunciation clear (the waitress at Muslim noodles, the couple at my favorite vegetable stall, etc.) because I can’t always understand regular-speed, slurred Beijing-hua. This is compounded because the presence of a foreigner often makes shop assistants mumble the beginning, look at their feet, and then trail off so the end of the sentence is inaudible. It’s possible that “Where are the lightbulbs?” happens to be an almost-homonym of “Would you be my girlfriend?” because I seem to remember answering high-school boys with the same tones and body language.

Anyway, the cool thing about written and spoken Mandarin being completely unrelated to each other, is that when spoken Chinese gets rough, there are tens of thousands of characters to learn! I have a textbook with tracing and copying exercises for the most common radicals, and am slowly pounding through it. The book gives a short explanation next to each new character, telling a little story about how it’s made, which is an unbelievably helpful mnemonic. If you remember the bits (“bits” being my highly technical term for simple symbols that become parts of complicated words) that make up the character, it’s easier to recognize the character. Sometimes the parts that make up the whole are like amazing minimalist poetry. Other times, I think Chinese is just screwing with me, and by “screwing,” I really mean another word that pastors’ daughters shouldn’t say.

My language work is already starting to pay off. I’ve stopped making Stick insane by reading “big” and “east” aloud over and over (those are popular words in Beijing signage), and I have started to read the odd phrase. Usually off the back of a package, which means I’ll proudly proclaim something like “Pocky no stop, good no stop!”

Well, it’s a slow process.

Related: The end of the veggie market.


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