Wednesday, November 22, 2006

It's all Chinese to me!

Of course, we were excited about the opportunities for all of us to learn a new language upon arrival here in Hong Kong. Tori was the first among us to start studying Chinese at school. I heard very little about it but what I heard was good. After about 1-2 weeks, Tori came home in tears about Chinese class. I then found out she had mistakenly been in the Native Speakers Chinese class this whole time and had to switch to the Chinese as a Second Language. She thought she would no longer be in any Chinese class. While I was slightly concerned at how blonde haired blue eyed Tori could pass for a native Chinese speaker, I was very pleased it was all fun and very desirable to her.

In Hong Kong, folks speak Cantonese Chinese but most understand Mandarin Chinese, not to mention English! So we are working on Mandarin, both because of its more widespread use and because that is what Tori’s school teaches. But actually we really have very little every day use for Mandarin. Everywhere we go, folks speak English to us. Only once, I had a cabbie, newly arrived from mainland China, who spoke no English. My few Mandarin lessons, which actually did stress numbers, helped us get out our street address and make it home. So we are in the odd position of learning a language not for every day use in the market but for every day use in helping oversee Tori’s homework.

The twins and I (and now Tori too for a little extra practice) all take Mandarin across the street at the American Club. Our teacher, Miss Jenny is fabulous, having Adam and Royce play with colored play- dough while learning their colors and the like. Miss Jenny sometimes tapes the kids saying phrases or acting out a little drama and then we listen to the tapes at home. (Tori’s school does the same thing). We are amazed to hear their little voices say the words with much better pronunciation than we could ever hope for. For the adults, Miss Jenny adds a little bit of history and politics to the lesson. For example, we were all clueless about a common Chinese phrase "chur la ma"/ how are you eating today?" until it was explained in the context of the Mao era famines.

Mandarin is complex. After studying a couple of months now, we have only learned the 4 tones, nothing of pinyin (written sounds- not phonetic- to accompany words) or characters (either traditional or simplified). All I know is the tonal aspects and I am not sure I can even say them. The tones mean that some words you say in a flat tone, some in a going down tone, some in a going up tone and other in a changing tone, switching direction in the middle of the word. This tone thing is crucial. The twins learned the word for cat, which is "mao" (flat tone.) I thought that Chairman Mao’s family name meant cat but no, that is mao (going down tone), just a family name. Actually, anytime I start to feel that my study of Tori’s kindergarten Mandarin is giving me some extra insight in my own class, Miss Jenny quickly says no, same pronunciation, same character, different meaning!


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