It was September 2007, at the age of 50, when I first began to study Chinese. Because of my age I felt strongly that joining young enthusiastic university students in a group class just wasn’t going to cut it for me, so I signed up for 1-on-1 classes, and there the journey began.
This post however is not about the long journey, on which path I am still on, it is rather about one small aspect of that journey – learning how to speak Mandarin with feeling…. like a Chinese, without sacrificing quality of tones or pronunciation.
Now I know everyone is different, but I think there is a common rule for all of us when we begin learning Mandarin. That is, to nail down all of the sounds and simultaneously train the ear to hear and the voice to speak the tones correctly, including the rule exceptions. We’ve all seen the initials-finals charts, and observed how the tones are explained in a graph format to help us understand how much movement each requires, and the relative tone ranges. You’ve also likely tried to mimic a teacher in class, whether in a group or 1-on-1.
But I believe there is another rule to be added and that is to begin by speaking the language almost as if it was a musical score, or even more simply stated, by coloring inside the lines. What I mean is to think of the language as being very fixed, all of the tones individually and always beginning and ending at the same place, extremely mechanical if you will.
We’ve all listened to native speakers, and we know they don’t speak mechanically. But then again they began listening to Chinese right out of the womb.
Speaking from the experience of beginning late, what I learned is that after having built a foundation of learning and practicing Chinese tones in a mechanical way, it became much easier to slowly transition into a much more natural expressive Chinese.
As with English, Chinese is not mechanical. Ideas, humor, sadness, all types and levels of emotion can be expressed without abolishing the tones (with the possible exception of extreme anger). As with English each phrase flows with a tone all it’s own, going up or down in order to express one’s feelings.
The point is this. Begin with a strict adherence to the tones, without the natural flow of native language, and you will eventually be capable of expressing yourself with accurate tones, the same feelings that come so naturally in your native tongue and touch the heart of your Chinese friends.