Monday, January 17, 2011

Dusting Off The Old Chinese Books

Today I sent my husband out to the garage to get my old Chinese textbooks.  Yes, they were in the garage collecting dust.  No I don't feel guilty about that.  It's been a while since I've had the time to sit down and read any book - let alone one that involves learning.  As of late, most of my days have been spent cleaning up toys, complaining about how there's "never anything good to eat around here", and making important decisions like choosing to ignore the fishy crackers mashed into the carpet in the back seat of our Buick Century.  Learning Chinese wasn't really on my mind for obvious reasons, but now that our youngest is sleeping better at night and now that I'm realizing that there's never really any perfect time for a busy adult to (gasp!) learn something new (are you thinking "old dog"? I am...), I've decided to just knock a few nonessentials (eating?) out of my schedule and hit the books.

Today's word of the day (first ever!) is yīnggāi (应该 ) "should" or "ought to" as in I should (yīnggāi) have gotten these books out earlier.  I should (yīnggāi) have killed that spider in the corner of the back window when I saw it a couple mornings ago (now I don't know where it went and it's giving me nightmares).  Or, I should (yīnggāi) stop eating large quantities of ice cream each day because it's likely that it won't help me maintain my figure, keep wrinkles at bay, and increase my cognitive abilities (a girl can dream...).  Also, I should (yīnggāi) explain a little about how Chinese words are pronounced - for the benefit of anyone out there who is new to Chinese.

Spoken Chinese is the stuff horror movies are made of because of its four tones.  Each syllable of a Chinese word is said using one of these four tones.  Use the wrong tone and you might just say the wrong word.  A classic example starts with the word "mǎ" (马) which means "horse".  Notice the little symbol above the a?  That little v-shaped symbol means that the syllable "ma" is pronounced with the third of the four Chinese tones.  Here's the syllable "ma" written in pinyin (Chinese written with roman letters to help one learn pronunciation) with each of the four tonal indicators in order - mā, má, mǎ, mà.  Now, as I mentioned before, if you pronounce "ma" using the third tone (mǎ), it means "horse".  If, however, you pronounce it with the first tone (mā), it means "mother".  Here's where I feel the need to interject a word of caution:  If, in trying to be polite, you gesture to someone's mother "mā" and proceed to ask how she is while incorrectly referring to her as a horse "mǎ", you might just offend someone.  Personally, if you referred to my mother as a horse, I would no longer consider you friend worthy, and you might just find your picture on my dart board (if I had one...).  I'm just saying.  Anyways, back to "ma".  If you pronounce "ma" using the fourth tone (mà) it becomes a verb, meaning "to curse, swear or scold".  Let's avoid cursing our friends' mothers, shall we?  Do you see where I'm going with this?  It's imperative to not neglect learning the important differences between the tones.

For the sake of your friends' mothers, you might just want to check out this handy link to more information on the four Chinese tones, which includes sound clips to help you learn how to say them correctly.  Also, for fun, here's a neat little game that allows you to practice tones.  Learning how to accurately use the four tones is essential.  Essential, essential, essential.  I think I'll say it one more time so you know I mean it: essential!

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's review the four words that we've learned today.  If you read this post without intending to learn anything, you might have just learned a few things against your will.  Unfortunately, it's to late to do anything about that.  So here are our words:

1.  yīnggāi (应该) should, ought to
Should (yīnggāi) I have learned the four tones before trying to talk about your mother? You bet.

2. mǎ (马) horse
No, your mother does NOT look like a horse (mǎ).  My mistake.

3. mā (妈) mother
Your mother (mā) is actually quite beautiful now that her plastic surgery is complete.

4.  mà (骂) to curse, swear, or scold
I'm really didn't intend to curse (mà) your mother.  How can I make it up to you?  Do you take debit?

So there you have it.  My first standard post.  Feel free to leave comments if you'd like.  Specifically, I'm open to suggestions about future words of the day (but keep it clean, of course -there are 10 year olds out there who also want to learn how not to insult their friends' mothers).  And, of course, feel free to suggest corrections to any of my posts if I should happen to make any errors.  If I were perfect, I'd be speaking fluent Mandarin by now, and, naturally, I'd be insulting all kinds of peoples' mothers.

Don't forget to check out this weeks interactive vocabulary list.

Image courtesy of Timothy Vollmer

1 comment:

  1. Nice,when I(native Chinese)watch this, I'm like "Wow",the foreigners are going into our language,(a bit proud,yes,proud).But honestly,you doin a good job ,which has and is gonna take you tons of work as for your level in Mandarin,I think you need to at least learn 8000 charas to really fairly understands what WE are writing and saying ,anyway,the grammar styles can be so sophisocated that only a person who's been grown up in China will know for sure,but don't know how to illustrate to others,All in all, Chinese is great,have fun, go for it.