I had another class this morning. I am now taking it two hours on Tuesday and thursday, along with Tom Davis, a friend here in Riviera — who has a driver to take us back and forth, which is a big help.
One great thing about Chinese as a language is there is no masculine/feminine and very little conjugation. For instance, Wo means I, me and mine. So then it is “just” a matter of getting down the tones and remembering vocabulary words.
The tones can be pretty wild. If you don’t know, there are four of them and they completely alter the meaning of words. Ma could mean four completely different things depending on you accent the A and at first they all sound more or less the same. I will say that after just about 10 hours of lessons, I can easily hear the different tones. That comes pretty quickly. Now, actually saying them correctly, understanding what others are saying and putting together to vocabulary… that’s another matter altogether.
One funny thing is that all the teachers at TLI where I am studying are women and most of them weight about 80 pounds. They have these little high voices and they want me to mimic them as I practice my tones. I feel like I am mimicking a dove cooing, with some of the first tones especially. And they kept telling me that my first tone was not high enough so I end up speaking in this absurd high pitched falsetto. And I’m thinking to myself, “Mr. Dou doesn’t sound like this!”
Last night I went out to dinner (very good Thai) with Colin Pine, Yao Ming’s translator for three years and now the NBA’s liason to Chinese government or something and a friend of his, the editor of a Chinese sports newspaper who is going to help me get interviews and translate for me. I discussed this with them and they were cracking up. They told me not to copy the women. Colin told me that the first year he spoke Chinese he sounded like a Taiwanese woman because that’s who he learned from and hung around. They explained that the pitch is all relative — the first tone is the highest, but it doesn’t matter where you start. I tried that at my lesson today but they kept telling me to speak higher.