I remember going to Disney World in Florida when I was a kid. I was really young, but I noticed that the signage was bilingual, like in Canada, except here it was English and Spanish.
And I found that I could read the simple warnings and instructions almost fluently.
Let’s try a little experiment. What does this mean?
Io voglio una bottiglia d’acqua.
That’s actually Italian. It means, “I want a bottle of water.” But you likely already knew that. You can probably even pronounce it well enough for an Italian to understand you.
How about this?
Yeah, good luck with that.
Here, I’ll make it easier: wo3 yao4 shui3 (this is Pinyin, presumably phonetic). Easy huh? It means, “I want water.”
The sentence structure gets a little screwy too. For example, to say “I want to eat now,” it translates as “I want now eat.” More fun is “Do you want to eat now?” “You want now eat (random particle that you only add for yes/no questions)?”
You think that’s hard? Now let me explain the numbers next to the Pinyin. Mandarin has 5 tones: the first is like singing a high, level note. The second goes from the middle of the register upwards, the third starts in the middle then goes down and up again. The fourth goes from a high register to a low one, and the fifth is a neutral tone.
You would think that similar words would be grouped together so that the tone would mean a different but similar thing, such as “to have” and “to want” being the same word with different tones. Nope. The word for 4 means “death” if you pronounce it wrong.
This gives me the sneaking the suspicion that “It’s time to die” was actually just supposed to be “It’s four o’clock.”
Meanwhile, I now impress my friends by saying, in my best action hero voice, “It’s death o’clock!” and then striking a pose.
Four is actually an unlucky number because of stupid foreigners making fun of it, but it’s also really memorable to me since I have three friends now whose names are “four four.” They have real English names, but I like to respect the culture and just translate the actual meaning to English.
Anyway, I’m chugging along fairly well thanks to this thing called the Pimsleur Method. Basically, you take one half-hour lesson a day that involves listening, repeating and answering questions with words that you’re taught as you go. The concept revolves around the idea that you learn better in intervals. For example, if I made you repeat a word a thousand times, you’d probably get it. But if I made you repeat it 5 times now, 5 times 2 minutes from now, 3 times 5 minutes from now, 2 times 15 minutes from now and once or twice periodically days afterwards, you’d remember it as well as if you’d sat there all day writing the thing on a chalk board. Maybe better.
The Pimsleur Method is available in tons of different languages including Italian and French, so if you want to learn a language conversationally in three months or less, seriously check this out.
So far it’s sticking pretty well, though people make fun of my horrible newbie tones. It’s ok though, because in response I look at them seriously and say, “Four four, it’s death o’clock.”