Musings of a Multilingual 4 | Learning Mandarin

Onto my fourth language – Mandarin. Mandarin is the dominant dialect of Chinese. It is referred to as the common language in Chinese. However, I grew up with Cantonese in my home. So you’d think learning one Chinese dialect when you know another would be easy. Not for me.

I didn’t really learn Mandarin until I had finished my university degree and went overseas to teach English. I lived and worked in the People’s Republic of China for a year. So my first learning experiences in Mandarin were not in the classroom, but on the streets, in the restaurants, and in the shops of Mainland China.

The funny thing about learning Mandarin, though, was that French words kept popping in my head. I would try to say the word “but” in a sentence. In Mandarin, they say dan shi, but the French word mais would keep popping in my head. This phenomenon, as I learned in my linguistics classes, is known as second language interference. Basically, Mandarin was trying usurp French from the language areas of my brain.

I eventually figured out some patterns of how Cantonese words would be spoken in Mandarin. The rules, as I learned quickly, were not hard and fast. A chicken in Cantonese is “gai”, which become ji in Mandarin. However, machine in Cantonese is “gei”, which also becomes ji in Mandarin. Figuring out some patterns helped me to guess the potential sound for some Mandarin words. But again, the patterns were not hard and fast.

The frustrating thing for me about knowing Cantonese and then learning Mandarin as an adult are all the differences in words between the dialects. I remember struggling to buy a bar of soap in a supermarket in China. The word for soap in Cantonese is “fan gan.” Using what I thought would be the correct “Cantonese mispronunciation” that would be close to Mandarin, my tongue hopeless flailed to Mandarin ears. The pronunciation for soap in Mandarin is fei zao. Of course I couldn’t ask for soap because I was using a Cantonese word for soap that doesn’t exist in Mandarin.

There was also the issue of having learned Traditional Chinese and then having to immerse myself in Simplified Chinese in the People’s Republic of China. I think I will save those foibles for another day.

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