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So many layers! By Alison Castle

Posted on 01 Nov 2013 in Teachers News

New to Chinese, Alison Castle explains her first experience of learning the language… and how there’s just too much to remember!

I’ve decided that it’s time for me to learn a new language – get my brain working, challenge myself. So I chose Chinese, which according to a recent UNESCO report is officially the hardest language in the world to learn.  Great.

Things started out just fine. I’ve been introduced to the tones of Chinese and with a good dose of repetition I’m starting to get the hang of it.  We practised a neat little sentence which to most people who don’t speak a word of Chinese would look pretty weird:

ma       màn     ma ma

That’s a lot of ‘ma’s’ in one go and if I remember rightly, it’s about a mother riding horse and it’s going too slow, so she curses it!   We all enjoyed saying it a few times.  Everyone likes a tongue twister.

Next was counting to 10.  How hard can it be? My daughter, who is five years old, learned to count to 10 in Spanish in about three minutes. Surely I can do this! At first it didn’t seem too bad, only my brain had to start working a little harder to remember both the right tone and the actual word.  We practised forwards and backwards, slow and fast and I was getting the hang of it but two numbers just didn’t seem to want to come out right – 4 and 10 – shí.  These two are still giving me trouble.  The first problem is that an ‘i’ sound isn’t at all like an ‘i’ in English, it’s actually more like a flat ‘e’ and then of course, you’ve got to remember whether the tone is falling or rising…urgh!

Then it was time to do some characters. I learned Japanese years ago, badly, but somewhere I had a few things locked away.  Japanese characters are basically the same and I was feeling pretty confident as I worked out the meanings of ‘big, small, moon, and rain.’ But of course, those characters may have the same meaning, but they are completely different words in Chinese. And then, there’s those darn tones again!  So off we went learning the meaning, practising the stroke order, and saying it correctly… several times over.

We’ve now learned some basic expressions to introduce ourselves – ‘What’s your name, nice to meet you etc.’ and we’ve learned the corresponding characters.  I was pretty proud of myself when we reviewed them and I remembered the meaning of 名字 (name), so I raised my hand confidently to answer and say the word – first in English.  And then the teacher asked, what is it in Chinese? The ridiculous thing was we’d just spent about 30 minutes practising our little introductions in pairs, I mean I must have said it ten times! But, could I at that very moment remember how to pronounce it correctly?  Nope. It’s míngzi  – and that rising tone and the final ‘i’ that sounds like a flat ‘e’ caught me out yet again and I messed it all up – 3 times in a row!

I used to be really good at learning languages. I’m one of those people who can kind of naturally imitate – I can do a good French ‘r’ and can roll my tongue for those Spanish double ‘ll’s’.  But Chinese is just a whole different world.

It’ll be impossible to learn this language without regular practice, lots of it.  It’s a language with a lot of layers and getting them all lined up evenly and in the right way each time seems practically impossible to me just now.

Let’s see if I can keep up – and if it gets any easier…