i have been studying Mandarin with a great friend, a scholar from Beijing. In three years he has become proficient in English and I am struggling to even communicate in the most primitive way.

Here are a few reasons why.

In Chinese many words that are spelled the same have different meanings based on the tone of the word being used. Here is a description of the tones.

1st
High and level.
2nd
Starts medium in tone, then rises to the top.
3rd
Starts low, dips to the bottom, then rises toward the top.
4th
Starts at the top, then falls sharp and strong to the bottom.
Neutral
Flat, with no emphasis.

To make it even more complicated let me give you an example of the word “jaio”. Depending on how it is pronounced it can have any of the following meanings:

glue, teach,reef,pour, suburbs,burnt,chew,foot stir, call,relatively,teach, sedan chair, proofread.

To me the most astounding fact is that 1.5 billion people have somehow mastered this language. In fairness the characters are how you can tell the difference but memorizing them is a challenge also. But I am not giving up. It is a sort of footrace to see which comes first, Chinese or the grim reaper!

 

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