3.10.2017

Talk the Talk 说中文

Talk the talk, start up a conversation
Talk the talk, let me inside your mind
Talk the talk, this could be a revelation
Talk the talk, we're talkin' the talk this time
-Mr. Mister


I was a good Chinese student last week. As my new Chinese tutor recommended, I watched a Chinese sitcom. Once. Twice. Again and once again, pausing the sitcom so I could read the Chinese captions because my hearing and language processing abilities are slower than the dialogue. And what did I learn?

I will never speak real Chinese. Not really.

For an English speaker, the Chinese language presents some major challenges. First, Chinese is tonal. Changing the tone is like exchanging a vowel in an English word. Cat and cot. In and on. Fat and fit. Doing so totally changes the meaning. In Chinese, the word "ma" can mean mother, horse, curse, or be a question particle depending on the tone. Second, English and Chinese speakers use different parts of their mouths and tongues to talk. There are some sounds I just plain cannot make. Getting my tongue and mouth to even remotely say 女 (nǚ girl) and 旅(lǚ travel) correctly feels like my tongue is in a twisting vise. Third, while simple sentences are pretty similar to English like 我给你这个 (I give you this), complex sentence construction and logic is not the same. Constructing a complex sentence in Chinese requires you to rewire your English brain. Not an easy feat for a 36 year old mom.

Let me give you some examples extracted from the popular Chinese sitcom, 家有儿女 (Home With Kids). The following sentences come from Season 1, Episode 1, with word for word English translation:
  1. 我的手被虫子给咬了!My hand by bug give bite.
  2. 人八十天把地球都换游一周。People eighty days take earth all around travel one cycle.
  3. 你们难道不想问点什么吗?比如说,我刚才干吗去了?You really not want ask little what? Example say, I just now do went?
Did you get that? I am sorry, let me put that in better English for you:
  1. A bug bit my hand.
  2. People can travel around the earth in eighty days.
  3. Don't you want to ask me something? Like what I have been doing?
I mulled the first phrase, "我的手被虫子给咬了", over for a few days. This sentence is in passive voice, or "My hand got bitten by a bug." Passive voice is usually a big no no for me. The more simple, concise and direct, the better. So I asked my Chinese friend if I can say, "虫子咬了我的手” (The bug bit my hand). She said sure, but you sound like a foreigner.

Yep, I will always be a foreigner. I cannot undo the thirty plus years I spent exclusively speaking English. My brain is dull and slow, frequently forgetting the tones and unwilling to connect with my old and tired tongue. And I have to train my brain to think in passive voice, I mean, my brain must be trained by me to think in passive voice.

Chinese word of the blog: 说中文 (shūo zhōngwén)
English translation: speak Chinese

Quick! Press pause...My hand by bug give bite ???