Speaking of Chinese

“In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.”
-Mark Twain

One of the many things that attracted me to Beijing was the language. I find the whole concept of a tonal language with no alphabet fascinating, and I wanted to understand how it worked

For anyone else interested in the Chinese language, I recommend the EXCELLENT book Speaking of Chinese by Raymond and Margaret Chang. It’s a very quick read. In it they discuss the history and usage of the language. For example, I learned that one advantage of a character language is that since the words do not reflect pronunciation, Chinese characters can be read and understood by Chinese speakers even after hundreds of years and large distances have changed the spoken language. Chinese people in different parts of the country speak different dialects and even different languages like Cantonese and Shanghainese, but they can all read and write the same language (traditional and simple characters notwithstanding.) I also didn’t realize that Guttenberg’s printing press was actually preceded by a Chinese printing press by a few hundred years. But, obviously, the thousands of characters made it impractical. I also learned through the book, and through living here, that the Chinese are able to type in Chinese by typing in pinyin on the keyboard. Pinyin is one of several ways to convert Chinese to Roman letters by the way the words sound. I actually find it difficult to read only pinyin without characters because there are numerous homophones If you ignore tones, there are at least 50 different words that can be pronounced shi. (And about 20 different shi in the fourth tone!)

So what are tones? Tones are the way you pronounce the word. Mandarin has 4 tones plus a neutral tone, Cantonese has 8 tones plus a neutral tone. If you pronounce a word in a different tone, it had a completely different meaning. For examply first tone tang means soup, while fourth tone tang means hot. Tang4 tang1 is hot soup. I know it sounds hard, but once you get the hang of it, it really isn’t that bad.

Speaking of Chinese illustrates the tones very well in this paragraph. Everytime you see the word dog, it is in a different tone from first to fourth. Ready?

Jeremy has climbed on a garbage can to peep through the back window of a pet shop, closed on a Sunday morning.
“What do you see?” asks his friend Aaron.
Dogs,” answers Jeremy.
Dogs?” repeats Aaron, his voice rising in query.
“Not dogs!” He is unable to believe his ears.
“That’s all I see,” protests Jeremy.
Dogs,” sighs Aaron, who was hoping to catch a glimpse of a boa constrictor.

Yes, my friends and family, I actually find this to be very interesting. Yeah… I know…

So my first day of class went very well. I studied some Mandarin before I came here (Thanks Yen Qiong!) so I was able to place out of about one month’s worth of classes from ultrabeginner to regular beginner. I’m also going to find a language partner while I’m here so hopefully I can reach a beginner intermediate level by the time I’m finished.

More people than I thought speak English here, and I have been spending quite a bit of time among expats so I haven’t spoken as much I would have liked. But I’m going to try and fix that in the days and weeks ahead.

I’m trying to post a little more frequently so my posts don’t end up being so long. There’s still so much I have seen that I want to record and share with you guys. But right now I need to run to BEER. Beijing Energy and Environmental Roundtable. There is a talk on transportation issues in Beijing, another thing that brought me here. I can’t wait. I’ll let you guys know how it is.

Zai jian!


April 8, 2009. Uncategorized.


  1. Sussman replied:

    Raymond and Margaret Chang are my parents next door neighbors. My brothers and I used to weed their garden for them for extra cash!

    • lgrab replied:

      Holy cow are you kidding?! That’s amazing! I figured they were in China. Have you read their book? What are they like? Was their garden weedy?

  2. Kristin replied:

    “Past scholars studied to improve themselves;
    Today’s scholars study to impress others.” I am indeed impressed 🙂

    • lgrab replied:

      Touche big sis. But one can’t improve on perfection… 🙂

  3. Sussman replied:

    Raymond is a Chemistry professor at Williams and has written many college chemistry textbooks—I’m not entirely sure what his wife does. They have collaborated on number of books, including one about his experience as a boy in World War II. In the Eye of War, I think it was called.

  4. Sussman replied:

    Lauren, when is your blog going to go international? You are really good at this.

  5. Mom replied:

    Laur I am truly enjoying your blogs. I had no idea you would like donkey meat. I should have cooked it for you when you were at home.

  6. Sussman replied:

    I heard Luke likes donkey meat, but only if it’s blended into a fine puree first….maybe you can prepare it for him?

    • Kristin replied:

      Dude I can barely get Luke to eat chicken let alone Donkey!!

  7. lgrab replied:

    I’m sure both Luke and Grace would love a pureed piece of ass! Who wouldn’t?

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