It's been about 2 weeks since I started my Mandarin course here in Taiwan. But just getting to that point was a feat in itself. It took me almost 2 months to decide whether or not going to school was the proper route here. After that was decided, than the search for the right campus was on.
I took my time narrowing it down to a few options, things were beginning to come down to the wire. My visitors visa was reaching its 60th day in Taiwan, and I would have to do my run to another country for an extension. But did I want to return as a tourist or as a student?
I had about 5 days left in the country when I finally decided that the best option for now would be to study at the Taipei Language Institute in Kaohsiung. This has been a turning point for my life here in Taiwan.
Some have asked me what is the hardest part of learning Mandarin. Without a doubt, for me at least, it has been the tones. There are four standard tones, five if you count the neutral one. The first, high pitched, is pretty much straightforward. Think robot with a cold.
The other 3 tones, (or 4 counting the neutral tone), can get tricky. Without this turning into Mandarin 101, the 2nd and 3rd tones sound incredibly similar, except the 3rd starts lower and dips slightly before rising. By the way both technically rise, although the rising of the 3rd tone will often times get swallowed based on some vague intuitive based rules. The 4th is written the way the 2nd sounds, and rather than just dropping from a regular tone, you actually start off higher than the high pitched 1st tone, before dropping suddenly to lower than the lowest part of the 3rd tone.
Confused yet? Well get this, although the 5th tone is simply called neutral, its not that simple. The actual pitch of this neutral tone changes, and is determined by the previous tones. It is voiced lower than the ending pitch of 1st, 2nd and 4th, but higher than the ending pitch if preceded by 3rd. As you can imagine, wrapping your mind around just the basics of this may come across as being very complicated.
But after two weeks of straight pronunciation, and being corrected 95% of the time, this tonal system no longer seems as complex as it looks. Honestly. The sound of Mandarin, or Jhongwen as it is referred to here in Taiwan, is actually rather rhythmic and highly intuitive. I'm beginning to not think so much about the rules of sounds and just trying to listen to what really sounds right. And on a positive note: I hear that once you grasp the basic concept of tones, the speaking part is pretty simple. Grammar and sentence structure is rather straightforward, with no real curve balls or questionable rules.
Wow, unless you're a lingo fanatic, I realize that I probably just seriously bored you all with this lecture on Mandarin tones. If you've actually read this far, maybe you're waiting for me to say how I really feel about going back to school again.
Well, so far, I love it!
I feel like I am actually getting something out of it. Sure, it costs a chunk of money, but after the first two weeks, it's definitely money well spent.
Life here has been so easy. There has honestly been hardly any adjustment period. The food is familiar and the people friendly. But the one thing that always weighed heavy on me was my inability to communicate verbally. The majority of Taiwanese are so cool about this that it always seems like no matter what, I've been able to get my point across regardless. But after two months of playing charades with the shopkeepers and waiters, and not even being able to say a simple greeting or introduction to my neighbors, it was all beginning to get old.
I felt like I had come as far as I could in the sign language department. If I was going to make a life here, I would have to get at least a basic grasp of the language, if not for my own well-being, than at least as a courtesy to the people around me who had become familiar with my presence.
Enter the three month long Mandarin classes at T.L.I.
Some $25,000NT and two weeks later, I no longer have to bow my head repeatedly in embarrassment for lack of words. I am beginning to differentiate between the 2nd and 3rd tones, I can compare the freshness of apples to bananas with a shopkeeper, or laoban, I can order green tea, black tea or tea with ice cream, depending on my mood, and I can say thank you, xiexie, and goodbye, zaijian, with semi-decent pronunciation. I look forward to what I have to learn in the upcoming month. I can see for myself that my resources are well spent.
So in case you were wondering how I really feel here...all in all, I can say with honesty, I am loving it.
Oh, and PS: I just bought a moped today. It cost me all of $1000NT, or $31.73USD. This is me...stoked.
And now we ask you: Have you ever tried to learn another language? What made you do this? And what helped you through it?
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...