Jacob Sullum

I'm beginning to think I may not learn Mandarin in time for our trip to China on Wednesday.

 I never thought I'd be able to read it. According to Mobo C.F. Gao's "Mandarin Chinese: An Introduction," "a knowledge of 3,000 characters is enough to get by in everyday use," while "the average printing shop stocks around 6,000 characters."

 Nor did I expect to speak Mandarin like a native. But I had hoped to learn a few basic phrases that would be helpful in communicating with the newest member of our family, a toddler named She Mei Chun. Phrases like "Don't touch that!" and "Don't put that in your mouth!"

 Conveniently, there's a phonetic, Roman-alphabet version of Mandarin known as pinyin designed to make learning the language easier. Inconveniently, the letters don't always correspond to the sounds you might expect.

 Using a c to represent the sound "ts" or a z to signify "ds" is not much of a stretch, I suppose, and ch reassuringly corresponds to the initial consonant in chicken , except "with the tongue curled back" (according to Lonely Planet's Beijing guide). Even the guttural h is not hard to remember, especially if you're used to Hebrew (or German).

 I started to get confused, however, when I learned that the letter q also makes a "ch" sound, but without the curled-back tongue. Likewise, using an r to make the sound "zh" and an x for "sh" is so counterintuitive that I suspect it's a joke played on English speakers.

 As for the vowels, it's not so hard to pronounce a as in father or o as in lot , or even to remember that I takes the place of a long e while ou indicates a long o . But I admit I was intimidated when I read in Gao's book that for certain Chinese vowel sounds "there is no English equivalent."

 The point where I really started to despair was when I found out about the tones. Even if you keep the pinyin letters straight and master the unfamiliar vowels and consonants, you can still be misunderstood unless you speak with the right lilt.

 The word ma , for instance, can mean "hemp," "scold," "horse" or "mother," depending upon whether your voice goes up, goes down, goes up and down, or remains steady. To make matters worse, the marks that signify tones in pinyin ordinarily indicate pronunciation: A flat line, for example, means a flat, high tone, not a long vowel.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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