Learning Chinese

A recently published article on the importance of learning Chinese and the extraordinary efforts of Mark Zuckerberg created a flashback. For the last fifteen years my  performance as a student of the Chinese language has been mediocre. Nevertheless, I still impress Chinese who expect foreigners to know nothing about their language. The article below captures some of the fun and flavor of this language learning endeavor:

Zuckerberg Learning Chinese


Zuckerberg (Credit Getty Images)

There are so many funny things that happen when you are trying to communicate. I like kids, and to me it is really funny when I am jealous of a 3 year old that has a better language skill than I have.  I can (often) understand them if they don’t talk too fast. A few years ago I was trying to use my Chinese to impress my high school English class. I said “Wo shi yige Meiguo Zhu(1)” and I got a tremendous laugh from the class. I used that several times and always got the same reaction. In China there are a variety of minorities and I thought I was telling people that I am an American minority person. What I was trying to say was: “Wo shi yige Meiguo Zu(2)”. The number behind the word signifies the tone of the syllable and a “1” represents a level tone, with a “2” representing a rising tone. Zhu and zu sound almost the same (zoo). In this case, Zu(2) means “minority people” while Zhu(1) means “pig”. My untrained ear couldn’t hear the difference.

Learning Chinese requires you to swallow your pride. You will make mistakes, and if you learn to laugh at your mistakes, leaning Chinese can be a lot of fun. It is also necessary to learn to be a bit humble (not easy for some of us). I’ve found most Chinese to be very tolerant of us butchering their language.