Thursday, September 2, 2010

Chinese All Sounds the Same!

It's easy to get a quick impression of a foreign language when you don't know a single word of it: Italian sounds romantic; German sounds harsh; Swedish sounds sing-song-y. It's hard to get an impression of your own language, probably because concentrating on the message gets in the way of listening with objective ears. How can you disengage yourself from your own language and let it swirl around you?  You can't.  A lot of non-English speakers have told me that American English has a cowboy drawl kind of sound to it, which they say has a pleasant ring.

Before I knew a word of Chinese, I had the distinct impression that "Chinese all sounds the same", meaning it came across to me as strings of short little words with a lots of "sh" sounds to it. Like sure, sure, sure.

After I had studied Chinese for a few years, and the language was starting to make some sense, I was surprised that I still seemed to hear just a small inventory of sounds. Then one day, I came across a chart of syllables of Chinese. And I discovered there are only about 400 possible syllable constructions in Chinese, compared with about 10 times that many -- 4000 --- in English. Chinese has short little syllables with mostly just a consonant and a vowel, like ta, he, bu, shi, hao. In English, syllables can grow long and clumsy, with strings of consonants clustering around a single vowel, like plump, stretched, strives. So there! Proof that Chinese really does kind of all sound the same.

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