As the semester at HKU reaches the halfway point and our midterms wrap up, I thought it’d be an apt time to give a progress report on learning a second language.
Throughout middle school and high school, I learned Spanish; however, living on the East Coast in a predominantly white town gave me almost no opportunities to harness that knowledge outside of the classroom. I’ve sadly forgotten most of what I once knew. Hence, I knew that I wanted to take a Chinese course in Hong Kong, because learning a language in an environment that actively uses it is much more effective. And so, for the past seven weeks, I’ve been enrolled in an introductory Mandarin class at HKU.
I mentally split learning this language into 3 categories: speaking, pinyin, and the characters. The first is closely tied with the second, as pinyin is the Chinese phonetic system. So essentially, speaking Mandarin can be done just by reading the pinyin words aloud. However, some of the letters I see on the page are not pronounced the same as in English. Most notable for me are the letters “e,” which is pronounced more like “uh,” and “q,” which sounds like “tch.” The latter is really fun to say, since I’m not used to seeing “q” without a “u” after it! The first, however, is still an adjustment. Our teacher often has us read example conversations in the textbook aloud, first line by line after her, and then by ourselves in groups. She then corrects our mistakes and gives feedback. At first, I was so nervous to speak in front of the entire class, but now I’m thankful for the practice. There are students from the UK, Korea, Japan, Kazakhstan, Morocco, and more in my class, so all our pronunciation problems are different. Our teacher’s individualized attention really helps everyone adjust to speaking correctly.
The most difficult part about writing the pinyin for me is remembering the tones. Memorizing vocabulary means not only spelling them correctly but getting the tone markings right too, and placing them over the right letters. There are five tones in Mandarin, and their markings basically describe how they sound. For example, the third tone is like a dip of your voice down and then back up again, and it is notated like a little v. It’s getting easier to speak the tones if I am reading the pinyin, but I still need to brush up on memorizing them for each word. I also need to better familiarize myself with the grammar, as Mandarin sentence structure can be almost counterintuitive to me. For example, instead of saying “What is your nationality?”, the literal translation is “You are from which country person?”. However, sometimes the grammar can be a lot easier than English! For example, there is only one word for “to be,” “is,” “are,” “am,” etc.; no need to worry about conjugation or tense.
The coolest and most useful part about learning Mandarin has been writing the characters. Cantonese has a lot more tones than Mandarin and therefore, words are pronounced differently. However, both dialects share the same characters. The population of Hong Kong predominantly speaks Cantonese, so I can’t actively practice my speaking, but I’m recognizing so many characters on street signs, public transportation, and menus. It’s so entertaining to see the ones that I just copied down for homework right outside my door! It’s a highly immersive experience and makes learning the language more fun and practical.
Mandarin is definitely not easy to learn, but it has been so interesting to learn a tonal language that functions differently from English. I will have to keep practicing to keep up with the pace of the class, but it’s definitely worth it when I can use that knowledge in my day-to-day life.