Learning to Speak Chinese

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeWriting Adventures in Shanghai

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Never in my life did I think I would be learning to speak Chinese. Italian? Maybe. French? Perhaps. German? Doubtful, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

Mandarin? No way.

First of all, I never thought I’d end up living in China. And second, Mandarin is a hell of a tough language…one so fundamentally different from the Indo-European languages with which we Westerners are comfortable, that the only way to take it in is to toss out our preconceived notions about language and open up to new possibilities. (Perfect mindset for a writer, huh?)

shanghai_lit-fest-2007_empt.gifAs you may know, Mandarin does not have an alphabet. Instead it has characters (thousands and thousands of characters). It is also a tonal language, and each spoken word has one of four tones: 1) up, 2) down, 3) up-down, or 4) flat. Each tonal pronunciation has a different meaning.

So…for example, ma (up tone) means hemp; ma (down tone) means either curse or swear; ma (up-down tone) means either yard or horse; and ma (flat tone) means either mom or wipe. (Of course, ma without any tonal marking at all is an indictor of a question…but let’s not go there.)

Got all that?

In addition, the order of the parts of speech in a sentence is very different than in English (time references, for example, come between the subject and the verb) AND prepositions are not always used. (If translated into English, a sentence might go something like this: I Sunday go store.)


But despite the challenges, I am living in China and learning to speak Mandarin. In addition to gaining the ability to chat with shopkeepers, maintenance folks, and new friends, my quest to speak Chinese has given me a lot to think about. And once I start thinking, it’s inevitable…I start writing.

So what about you? What class or group can you join that might first lead you to opening your mind in new ways and then lead you to a new writing project?

How about that knitting circle on Wednesday nights? Or golf lessons at the new course? Either could develop into a great profile or interview for your local paper.

Feeling adventurous? How about that belly-dancing class all the women at the gym are crowing about? It’s a sure sell…for you and for the editor at the right magazine who is just waiting for your article to land on her desk: “Shake It Up: Belly Dance Your Way to a Happier Sex Life.”

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit http://web.mac.com/kristinokeeffe.

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