The journey of a thousand (Mandarin) words begins with bopomofo

There are two things I’ll remember most from my Mandarin classes at TLI. One–that familiar headsore, and two–singing syllables. The headsore is not alarming. I think of it as my brain attempting to rewire or refocus, Like there were nuts and bolts, cogwheels and gears, squeaking slowly, being brought back to life inside my gray matter. It wasn’t a headache, but something that probably resembled how muscles get sore after a rigorous exercise…after years of having none hehe.

Though I did some Mandarin classes before, this is the first time I’ve actually paid more attention to the basics–the four different tones and how they apply to bopomofo. Back then I was so eager to start talking in Mandarin that I thought the process would be the same way as talking in Tagalog or English. Our teacher did emphasize tonality, but my mind was elsewhere focusing on word usage. So I ended up memorizing all the Mandarin words I could, some rules for sentence construction, did bopomofo just fine but ended up not really focusing on getting all four tones right or at the very least distinguishing them from each other.

Learning Mandarin as an adult is very challenging, not because of the language itself, but because you have to recalibrate your mind. Kids basically slay when learning languages because they are sponges and their gray matter are maybe fresh? Haha, but yeah as an adult who never had any Chinese family background whatsoever (contrary to what most Taiwanese think, yep, stop it, nobody in my family is Chinese), the #struggleisreal. Waaay tooo reaaal.

I’m down to my last one-on-one sessions at the Taipei Language Institute (TLI), and It’s my first time to try a one-on-one setup. I think it was a good move as I’ve retained some crucial things–bopomofo and the 4 tones–more than I ever did. I decided to try this setup just to see how it’s different from a group class, which I’ve done before thanks to my former employer. I’d have to say one-on-one is more ideal for beginners or intermediate beginners like me because the teacher gets to focus on you. Although we’re using a textbook at TLI, the pace was ideal for my kind of beginner level because we started out with almost imprinting in me the importance of the bopomofo system with the 4 Mandarin tones. I’ve never really been able to distinguish the first and second tones, until now. I even correct myself now, how cool is that!

And, here are some insightful tidbits I realized this time as I got back on my Mandarin challenge journey:

Learning Mandarin is easy, it’s changing your mindset that’s difficult. – I’ve been told over and over that Mandarin is the hardest language to learn. On the other side of the fence, Taiwanese friends would say, “but English is more difficult!” I used to argue that they spoke it since diaperhood, but now I realize that English is indeed more difficult. What could really throw you off into the point of giving up learning Mandarin are the FOUR TONES a.k.a. The Four Horsemen of your Mandarin Apocalypse (they’re that tough to learn, REALLY!)

Aside from thinking about what to say, you also need to think about HOW TO SAY IT. It’s like your mind works double-time each time you speak Mandarin so you probably need to produce more brain cells than ever. Mandarin’s basic foundations are the 4 tones and the bopomofo–which my teacher photocopied in an A2 and proudly handed over to me while saying, “here’s the entire Mandarin language!”

As for English, we only use tones for emphasis or inflection. In Mandarin, you set aside feelings when using tones. You start using your brain to remember how to UTILIZE tones.

Chinglish becomes more logical than funny once you start learning Mandarin. – There was a time when I was such a fan of Funny Engrish memes. I think it’s also because I’m a writer and by default have an inner grammar nazi–nevermind if my English is hardly perfect at all. Anyway, ever since I started learning Mandarin I’ve become more tolerant of funny translations that aren’t really crucial to daily life. I’ve started to go through the logic as to why Chingrish is constructed as such.

One of the examples would be the phrase, “How to say [insert word here]?” I get asked this a lot, and before I would find it funny. Now I just find it amusing that folks would use “How to say [insert word here]?” instead of, “How do you say [insert word here]?” The former has a direct translation to Mandarin, the latter simply doesn’t make sense when directly translated to Mandarin. Another favorite is “3Q.” It’s common for locals to message you this, because they verbalize it as “san kyu” which is the way non-English speaking folks could say “thank you.” San is Mandarin for the number 3, Q is the English letter pronounced as is.

But of course, it still doesn’t hurt if most people would spell English right.

Mandarin uses your entire mouth thus helping improve general speaking ability. – I used to wonder how come most Taiwanese speak English with an American accent. Meanwhile, we Filipinos have our own accent when speaking English despite the fact that our educational system and our English were mostly patterned after Uncle Sam’s system. I realized that such Taiwanese ability might be an indirect Mandarin effect as the language focuses heavily on making very specific syllabic sounds. So I guess, when they learn English, they also pick up the precise way it’s being said.

I also noticed that ever since I’ve started learning Mandarin, I speak more eloquently in English and Tagalog. Like my mouth now automatically sets itself right when choosing between languages. I actually surprise myself when shifting between Mandarin and English. Locals are my language prompts, because if I don’t eloquently speak they wouldn’t understand me but when I get my Mandarin tones right, we get down to business no problemo. In addition to that, I also retain skills linguistically.

Mandarin has only two types of sentences: declarative and interrogative. – Keeping this in mind has made me survive thus far when it comes to learning Mandarin. For as long as I know that there are only two sentence patterns I need to remember, I will persist haha. The interrogative sentences in Mandarin also have a distinct quality to them, using “ma” in place of a question mark. So you don’t really have to worry about inflecting your last word to make a sentence sound like a question. You just have to say “ma” at the end of it to make it so. Or, use the word “bu4” (4 means 4th tone) to negate something. For example: Ni yao bu yao hong cha–this directly translates to You want or not want red tea?

You don’t need to be interested in Chinese culture to learn the language, you simply have to be interested in the language and you’ll discover the beauty of Chinese culture. – I’d have to be honest, I didn’t really find Chinese culture as interesting as Japanese culture, or any other foreign culture, before coming to Taiwan. I think it’s because there are so many Chinese traditions already embedded in Filipino culture that it’s no longer that foreign to me.

But, so far, there’s more to Chinese culture than I think I already know, especially in the context of Taiwan. And the more I learn Mandarin, the more I realize why Chinese folks think a certain way, why they have such defined respect for elders, and (my favorite!) how traditional Chinese characters are actually rough drawings of things/ideas they represent–who says hieroglyphs are a thing of the past?!


So it’s been 3 weeks, and personally, I don’t think it’s enough to say I’m now fluent in speaking. I still am not, I still struggle, and my brain hangs whenever people talk to me in fluent Mandarin. I think it will take years and total immersion for me to achieve fluency that can chameleon me into a full-pledged Taiwanese haha. For now, I’m just glad that I can already catch a few Mandarin phrases here and there when I randomly hear locals talk, that I can buy stuff using just Mandarin and banter with my teachers with what little Mandarin I know. The second agenda is to be able to talk to old folks who always seem to gravitate towards me when asking for directions. I mean, I take it as a sign that I am an approachable person, but it does feel like sh*t to not be able to help most of the time.

So if you are learning Mandarin, for whatever reason, just keep at it. And trust that Buddha in his compassion will help us get through it all haha. But seriously, it’s a good decision–personally and professionally. And hope you too get to enjoy the benefits that aren’t just fluency-related.

jiāyóu! 🙂

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