Every conversation is a lesson and my most interesting ones have been on taxi rides. I try to start conversations with the friendly drivers who correct my pronunciation or teach me new phrases. When I first came here, I was unaware of tones and had written a few phrases down in a notepad. As I was looking over them in the metro, a girl suddenly grabbed the pad out of my hand and started scribbling furiously. She took a minute to fill in every tone for every syllable, handed the pad back, and instructed me to never learn phrases without tones again.
Though most Chinese expatriates in cities like NYC speak Cantonese Chinese, the most commonly spoken language in mainland China is Mandarin. I’ve dabbled in French, Hindi, Tagalog, and briefly Japanese, but this is by far the hardest language I’ve encountered. It is entirely possible to pronounce a word perfectly but have the wrong tone and be completely misunderstood. The key to learning Chinese is distinguishing between its four tones. For instance, depending on how you change your vocal inflection as you pronounce, “ma,” you could mean four different words. The first tone is high-pitched and flat, the second involves raising the voice in a questioning inflection, the third is achieved by first lowering then raising the voice, and the fourth is uttered with a sharp tone that is described as falling. Tones in Chinese are contingent upon the word itself, not on where it’s placed in the sentence as are inflections in English. Shanghainese is also commonly spoken here and the fact that I can’t tell the difference between the two languages confuses the process of learning vocabulary.