Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Getting to Know Asia: Mandarin Chinese

Continuing this series, the purpose of which is to help learn what is Japanese by learning what is not, tonight we're going to touch very briefly on the differences between spoken Japanese and spoken Mandarin (Chinese).

It may seem like a random thing to differentiate between, but it can be helpful at times for beginning Japanese learners. (For example, if a friend sends you a Youtube TV clip and wants to know what they're saying, you can at least know that you're not understanding because it's a different language, not because your Japanese is poor.)

Spoken Japanese is largely monotone, like English. We may go up or down depending on our emotions, but the meaning stays the same no matter what our tone is. "Great!", with high-pitched, real excitement, is still "Great." when we drag it out in a lower, sarcastic tone.

Mandarin, on the other hand, has four different tones, and the same word said with each tone has a completely different meaning. There are great audio examples of a single word, "ma", and its different tones and meanings here.

To hear the changing tones of Mandarin in action, check out the opening scene of the 2002 Jet Li action movie Hero, a gorgeous and interesting martial arts movie (the talking starts about two minutes in).

For comparison, watch the trailer for the 2001 Japanese film Onmyoji, an entertaining historical action/mystery about legendary onmyoji (a kind of sorcerer) Abe no Seimei.

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