I Heart Indies

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Learning Mandarin

Learning Mandarin

My daughter Catherine is getting married this summer to a wonderful man - Drew Chiang.  We've met Drew's parents a couple of times, and they are wonderful, charming people.  Some of his family who will be at the wedding, however, may not speak much English, so Nancy has been studying Mandarin.  Mandarin, in case you don't know, is a language in which the denotation of the word is largely communicated through tone.  A phrase like, "Happy to meet you," for example, might mean something entirely different if different tones are used, "There are tadpoles in my soup," for example, or "Come meet me at the abattoir."  (In English, of course, tone primarily communicates emotion.  My wife might say my name a number of different ways, and she often has occasion to, but I never wonder whether she's talking about me.)  I will confess that the first time I heard her practicing Mandarin - the iPod would say "Ni hao," - two notes, the second one slightly bent - and Nancy would dutifully repeat, "Ni hao" - I couldn't help laughing.  To an American ear, to my American ear at any rate, Mandarin did not even sound like a language - it lacks the dry cadences of Western Europe, the hard syllables like stepping stones pressed into mud.  Instead there is this lilt that makes lilting Irish seem pedestrian by contrast, and phrases that take sharp unexpected dips and rises into high notes and low, alien fricatives and plosives.  But as I have come to hear it more, I begin to pity English - especially Southeastern US English - for its drab lack of tonality.  In Paris, I remember the charm of visiting shops and hearing clerks and customers chirp across the counter, "D'accord," "D'accord;" it was like a little song they sang to one another.  Well, everything in Mandarin is that way.  In fact, it is as close to birdsong I believe as any language on earth.  Nancy's evening class at Emory is coming to a close, and she's enrolling in a new one in a school her Taiwanese hairdresser found for her in the Chinese Yellow Pages.  Nancy's favorite sentence is "I don't speak Mandarin well," "Wǒ shuō de bù hǎo."  She says it over and over again, "Wǒ shuō de bù hǎo, Wǒ shuō de bù hǎo."" to get the tone right.  It starts off somewhere in the middle of the throat, then falls into an abrupt gully about halfway through, climbing up on the far bank with a fetching rise and half-pirouette - like the vocal acrobatics of a virile mockingbird.  I listen to her practice for a while and the sound I am hearing, I know, is love made auditory - Catherine's love for Drew, Drew's love for his family, Nancy's love for them all.  It's time to feed the chickens.  Spring is here, thank the Lord, and jonquils are blooming.  In the trees the warblers are practicing their Mandarin.

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