Tuesday, March 07, 2006 · posted at 2:21 AM
Zhongwen ke. I recently went to a Mandarin class at school for fun. It's such an aphrodisiac to see a cute guy who wants to learn to speak Chinese. Finally, someone you can bring home to your parents! And then he opens his mouth and you quickly remember what an ugly language Chinese can be and not even Brad Pitt's face can save a guy from that turn-off.

Tonal languages are not pretty. It doesn't help that in beginning Mandarin classes there's so much emphasis on enunciation and that most people, the teacher included, think enunciating means saying loudly... oh so very loudly. I wanted to just stand up and tell them, "Stop yelling at me!"

Four years of high school Mandarin, and I still can't string together a sentence more complex than subject + verb + predicate. My vocabulary hovers around 300 words (3000 is considered necessary for everyday use) and my first response to every question is "mo ichi do kudasai" and then I realize just how hopeless I am because that's not even Chinese - it's Japanese!

But I know who's at fault for my lingual inabilities. Yup, that's right, it's all the textbook writers' faults. There must be hundreds of Mandarin textbooks published, but it seems as though they're all written by the same person using the same non-practical examples:

A: Ni shi na guo ren? What is your nationality?
B: Wo shi Faguo ren. Wo shi liuxiesheng zai Waiyu Xueyuan. I am French. I am a foreign student at the Foreign Language Institute.

I have never, ever been to or seen a Foreign Language Institute though it is quite plausible that this is the reason for my poor language skills. Furthermore I have never met a French foreign student... speaking Mandarin. Really. Who comes up with this stuff? And then they just do nation + noun mixing exercises which is basically slapping a country name in front of a noun: German book, Japanese pen, Chinese person... French car? Does France even make cars? I don't know when I would ever reference a French car in daily exchanges.

Apparently this lack of conversational skill is not limited to Mandarin classes. One of my friends told me his light bulb burned out at a hotel in Mexico and he could only explain in Spanish that the "glass like the sun" needed replacement.

Which makes me wonder if maybe it's an any-language-to-American-English that's the problem since there are plenty of Europeans like Bridgette the trilling tour guide (see Europe pictures) who can speak 5 languages and put us all to shame.

Wake-y wake-y.

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