Mandarin is hard.
You have an alphabet, informally known as bopomofo, with 37 characters.
They’re sorted into three groups, a bit like our consonants and vowels, and then you throw in tones, of which there are five. These forsaken tones determine how a word is pronounced and add automatic emphasis; it’s not like in English, when you can put oomph into a word. Do that in Mandarin and you change the meaning of the word.
The four characters in the chart are pronounced “ma”. There’s a fifth “ma” that basically means “question mark”. Each one is said slightly differently. The fifth tone, not in the chart, is represented by a dot. I think it means to say the letter monotone and fast. It could mean I’m supposed to cross my eyes when I say it. It could mean anything. I get confused.
Now, to complicate things further, the alphabet only tells you how to pronounce a word. It doesn’t show you how to write the character.
I have to memorize bopomofo. I have to memorize the tones. That will allow me to read.
I won’t understand what I read, though. To do that, I have to memorize the characters for words and how to write them.
Then I have to memorize what the character is in Mandarin, how to pronounce it, and what it means in English. Then I have to rub my stomach and pat my head and sing the Latin alphabet backwards all at the same time.
Sunny and I meet Thursday mornings at 10:30. We go through one chapter from my book over the course of an hour; I take lots of notes and repeat what she says.
I do a lot of repeating, and many times Sunny and I have to discuss how my tongue is supposed to curl in my mouth and where my lips are. Lots of mouth gymnastics.
I take copious notes in my notebook and in my book, and just about everything has the Chinese character, pinyin (the phonetic spelling of the Chinese word using letters), the English translation, and notes on how to pronounce the word.
Mandarin might be easier if I stuffed my mouth with marbles. I’m learning how to make new, weird sounds, and my American tongue often fumbles around my mouth. I imagine I sound a lot like a barnyard animal with all the sounds I make.
At the end of the hour, Sunny and I will often stop, look at the board, and laugh. It’s generally completely covered with Chinese, bopomofo, drawings to help me remember characters, and quick English translations.
I’ll never be fluent, but I’m having fun learning. Thank goodness Sunny thinks it’s fun to teach me, because this would be a miserable venture otherwise.