Contorting my lips into an unfamiliar shape, I push air through them. Out come different sounds than those ordinarily escaping from my mouth: “Baw, Paw, Maw... .” I am learning initial consonants in Chinese.
Language: it’s certainly something of a barrier here. Yes, there are people who learned English under the British rule of Hong Kong, but that ended 15 years ago. Many Hong Kongers only learned English in school and never used it otherwise. (Sound familiar, Anglophone Canadians?) And since the handover to China in 1997, Mandarin is emphasized as the second language in local schools, not English. So, I do run into circumstances where there is, as they say, a failure to communicate.
Luckily, as I’ve noted before, there are hand signals, smiles and quick sketches to smooth the way. I thought I’d make do. After all, I was initially planning to work in HK for three months, do some travelling and head home. However, when my contract stretched to six months, I began wondering about language.
Travelling in Taiwan between contracts helped cement my decision. Our guide, an Irishman who had lived overseas for 20 years, spoke Mandarin fluently, and was a lover of language. He taught us some basic words and characters and explained why they were used in particular situations. I was intrigued.
Upon my return to Hong Kong, I decided to take up the language challenge. Hong Kong natives, however, speak Cantonese, a dialect with limited use outside the region. If I learned Mandarin, it would be useful throughout Mainland China, Singapore and Taiwan. Since schools in Hong Kong now teach it, too, it seemed much more practical, so Mandarin it was.
My trusty Lonely Planet guide led me to a language school. (If you travel to HK, this Lonely Planet guide has an AMAZING amount of useful information. I speak from experience.) I phoned to inquire about lessons and was invited to a trial class with three women from India. It was fun, but it turned out that none of them was ready to pursue language studies immediately. Since I was working on a three-month contract, there was no time to waste, so I opted for private lessons.
My lessons take place only once a week, so I won’t progress very far while I’m here, but the good news is that I can continue learning once I return. I’m sure I can find a Mandarin speaker or two wherever I go. Learning to read? That's another proposition entirely!
My teacher is a young woman from Nanjing with a master’s degree in teaching Chinese to English speakers. Her name, she told me, was Lillian – the same name as my mom’s. However, her name has a different origin: it derives from her Chinese name, Li Lian.
Lillian spends her day teaching Mandarin to all kinds of people: expatriates, Hong Kong Cantonese speakers and little children. In fact, she uses some of the basic techniques that work with children in teaching me – I can use arm movements with the best of them to imitate Mandarin’s four tonal symbols!
Yes, alas, tones are a major aspect of Mandarin, or Putonghua (the common language), as it is also known. In fact, languages without tones apparently seem primitive to the Chinese – Cantonese, to my horror, has nine! Using tones incorrectly can mean death – literally. If you say si with the wrong inflection, it translates as death, rather than four. Hence the Chinese aversion to the number four in buildings, licence plates, phone numbers, etc.
Given that it has been many years since I’ve studied a language, I didn’t remember how much work it takes. Repetition is all, so I’ve prescribed myself a daily dose of Mandarin. I don’t always meet my goal, but I’m trying. (How’s this for a great pickup line: Want to come to my apartment and try my flashcards? -Yes, I’ve resorted to flashcards, that old elementary school studying standby! But rest easy, I haven’t put the line to use.)
As a matter of fact, I have discovered that studying my Chinese on the subway is a great icebreaker. People look over my shoulder and comment; they are pleased to see a Westerner making the effort. Recently, I sat next to a woman who insisted I read my lesson aloud so she could correct my pronunciation!
I think I’m progressing – in fact, I know I am. But apparently, I still have a long way to go. “I like teaching you,” Lillian told recently. “You are reading well, and your pronunciation makes me laugh.”
I do like to make people happy – but this isn’t the way I usually go about it! Ah, well – back to studying.
Cheers – and zaijian (goodbye) for now! When you see me next, perhaps I’ll sing you the Chinese alphabet song!