08 August 2010

I can't say "no" (or can I?)

For our 21st anniversary this week, my wife, Lori, gave me Rosetta Stone for Mandarin Chinese. A most excellent gift from a most excellent (and lovely) spouse. Rosetta Stone is software for a PC or Mac that is top-rated for effective teaching of languages.  I'm very excited to have the opportunity to have an effective method for learning a little bit of the language before visiting China in October.

Typical of my way of over-thinking things, though, the prospect of knowing a little of the language is not without pitfalls.  For example, I know that China is a land of many languages. Mandarin is the official language of China, and is spoken in Beijing, where we'll be spending the first couple of days, but is it widely spoken where we'll be spending most of our time, in Yunnan Province?  (WikiTravel.com assures me that Mandarin is the official language of Yunnan P., although ethnic minority populations, of which there are many in Yunnan P., speak their own languages.)

Another concern: I've read in numerous sources that Chinese/Mandarin is a tonal language.  This means that, even if one knows the correct word for something, using a different tone to utter that word can make it unto a completely different word. An example of this concept can be found in this article on Wikipedia (click on the box that says "listen to the tones" to hear the same syllable pronounced in four different tones to mean four different things). This means that there is a great danger that one might mean to say, "You remind me of my mother," but actually say, "You remind me of my horse." The thought of making such an embarrassing mistake, no matter how innocent, makes my stomach turn. The phrase, "I know enough to be dangerous," comes to mind--for novice speakers of Chinese, it's not just a quip.

Then there are other, less rational fears. The fear of practicing in front of other people. The fear of being the only one who "knows some Chinese" on the trip and being called upon to be the family spokesperson. The fear of forgetting everything I've learned... The list goes irrationally on.

It might be typical of me to use such fears as an excuse to put off taking a first step; however, in this case, there is no such option because that would mean wasting my wife's most excellent gift, which I had asked for, no less. So, setting fears aside (for the time being), I install the software and give it a go.

After brief hiccups installing the software (couldn't install the software updates from within the program) and setting up the headset (must plug the headset in first, then launch the application for the headset to be recognized by the software), I'm finally ready to start.  And it goes really well. It's fun. There's no pressure. (Of course, I did my first lesson at 2:30 in the morning, well after everyone was in bed and asleep, thus averting "fear of practicing in front of others."). The software is totally immersive. There is no translation involved. Everything is in Mandarin, from the very first screen (picture of friendly people walking toward you and waving--Ni hao!) to the last screen of the first lesson (picture of people in a car driving away and waving--Zai jian!). I'm excited by to go on, so I take my computer to work the following day so I can work on the next lesson at lunchtime. I score 86% on the first lesson, then 92%, then 100%! I'm on a roll.

Moving on to the second level of lessons, I reached a point where the software took it upon itself to teach me now to say "yes" and "no." Simple enough to learn, right? The software starts by first acquainting me with the interrogative form--after all, one must have a question first before one can answer "yes" or "no." Rosetta Stone shows some picture sequences. A horse galloping. Is the horse galloping? Dui (yes).  A woman drinking water. Is the woman eating? Mei you (no). OK, I've got it. Then the software asks me to repeat the words. In the first few lessons, I had trouble repeating a few phrases, but eventually got them. This time, though, I can't get past pronouncing mei you (roughly pron. may'-ee yoo-oh'). I tried and tried, my voice higher, my voice lower, tilting up at the end of you, tilting down, louder, softer, faster, slower. Nothing worked. I can't say "no." What am I saying, I wonder?  "Maybe?" "Garbage can?" "Booger?"  God forbid I'm saying some swear word or the ONE insult you can't say without starting an international incident. Finally, I decide that there might be a computer glitch.  I quit the application and restart. This time, it takes my "mei you" just fine.

So, to my great relief, I can say "no" after all. Onward.

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