Month: February 2014

A Brand New Set of Synapses

I don’t know if Chinese New Year resolutions exist, but if they don’t, I’m giving birth to them right here on my desk. While you live with that image for a moment, I’ll tell you about my CNYR. I am learning Mandarin.

I’ve always wanted to learn Chinese, and now that I’m within scud missile range of China, I figured I’d give it the old college try. Actually, I tried to learn Japanese in college, so perhaps that isn’t the best idiom. I’m going to cram Mandarin into my skull, with the butt-end of a broomstick if necessary. There. Much better.

Practically, Cantonese would be the better version to learn while in Malaysia, since it is far more commonly spoken, and Hokkien, one of its dialects, would at least be semi-intelligible. It would be nice to be able to speak to people here in a language that I could take elsewhere (Bahasa Malaysia is pretty specific), so maybe I’ll find some way to learn it before I leave. That’s not to say I can’t take Mandarin with me–I’ll definitely try to use it when I travel–I just don’t know how much mileage I’ll get from it here.

Unfortunately, the way my life is scheduled at the moment, I don’t have time to go to a physical classroom and learn Cantonese. So Mandarin it is! To start me off, I got the full five-course set of Rosetta Stone instruction while it was on sale. It still cost a pretty penny, but honestly, the system seems interesting, and I’ve definitely had moments where I can pick a few words and phrases out of eavesdropped conversations. I think I should probably start consulting different sources for phrases like “white devil” and “hairy one,” but first things first.

I had an idea how tough it would be to pick up any Chinese language, mostly because they are very tonal, and while I’m not tone deaf, my few bouts with karaoke could be described as bizarre or off-putting. Even hearing the tonal differences is difficult, though. As a native American English speaker, the part of my brain that picks up on subtleties of inflection is severely atrophied. Picking up on the variations fěng, fèng, féng, and fēng when they’re alone is pretty easy. In context, in a sentence, next to other words? It kind of hurts at first.

But, hey, perhaps adding a bit of inflection to my monotone drawl will be a good thing.

One last thing about this whole venture. I had a weird thought today about the act of learning a different linguistic structure. Maybe I’m afraid of commitment, or maybe I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of reorganizing part of my brain, but learning a language feels a little like entering into a long-term relationship. Most of it is good and shiny and happy, but you find yourself in a position where you have to share your space and occasionally clean up the other person’s mess. And the longer you stay with it, the more permanent it feels. In a relationship, that just means reorganizing your life a little (or a lot, like moving to Malaysia), but with language, it means rewiring your brain. Not only does this color ♥ has different sounds and symbols attached to it, but the place it appears in a thought is different. It’s like letting an electrician into your home, blindfolding yourself, and telling him to rewire all the switches.

It’s bananas, man.