Oh why, why, why: Singing in Mandarin

Dear Taipei,

When you’re learning a language, sometimes you have to throw all your dignity out the window and do a terrible tone-deaf cover in front of your whole class. (Video below…)

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The other day when our teacher said that in lieu of our usual weekly speech we would instead have to perform something in front of the class, I could not disguise my sheer horror.

She said we could either memorise two tongue-twisters, sing a song in Mandarin or do a dance. Not liking any of the options, I decided at the last minute last night to sing a song. The thing is I only knew (very vaguely) one Mandarin song. The one that probably every Chinese learner will be familiar with- Duibuqi by Transition

It’s a song about the funny struggles of not having very good Chinese. The best part is when they highlight one of the most common mistakes people learning Mandarin make- mixing  up the words for sleep (shuǐ jiǎo ) and boiled dumplings (shuìjiào). As you see, the words are the same, but the tones are completely different- thus leading to many people announcing “I want to eat sleep!”. I have definitely done that once…. or five times….

Losing a class game of scissors, paper, rock, I had to perform first. I have pretty bad stage fright, so I was surprised how “well” I managed. You can tell how embarrassed I am because I keep avoiding looking at my classmates! It’s a very easy and repetitive song to sing- but my nerves got the best of me sometimes and I got muddled up. Childhood dreams of being a popstar crushed! But -I survived-!

I must be on a “Thank God It’s Friday!” high, because for some reason I have decided to humbly share my tone-deaf cover with you all:

Please don’t be too harsh! I know I can’t sing (especially in  Mandarin!) to save my life.

When my teacher first shared the song with us, I literally could not understand any of it as it was on my second week of school. Coincidentally, about two weeks later, someone commented on this very blog (hello, wherever you are!) and also shared it with me. They kindly gave me some encouragement and said it’d be cool when I could understand it.

Now I can completely understand it (albeit, it’s a very simple song), and I think back to when I couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin, I guess it’s a nice little reminder how far I have come. Especially when I constantly worry that I’m not making any progress, sometimes I need these little nudges to keep my chin up and keep going.

Because when you’re learning a language- you have have to relish in your achievements (singing in front of your class without dying) and laugh at your embarrassments (singing in front of your class without dying).

I truly think in order to improve you just have to throw all your dignity out the window, make an innumerable amount of errors, be laughed at and let it slide, hit a wall in your studies but doggedly push through, forget a bunch of things and question your very sanity and every other cliche in the (Chinese text) book, and somewhere along the way, you’ll find that you progressed to a place you genuinely believed you would never reach.

And in that place, you’ll do all those things again, and again, and again until it seems almost futile, and you will wonder what you’re doing this all for, but hopefully- one day- this language that you’ve given so much time and dedication to – is no longer just a “foreign” language to you, but one which you can take as your own- to speak your thoughts and to share with the world, you.

-TTT

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19 comments

  1. funicular · · Reply

    Awesome stuff!! Although the lyrics were fairly easy, I thought the song was kind of hard to sing during the really fast parts but you did a really admirable job. Plus you had to sing in front of the whole freaking class!! You seriously deserve a huge pat on the back for that performance and for all the progress you’ve made so far 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Funicular, lovely to hear from you again!

      You literally made my day with your comment! Stupid goofy smile and all! Thank you so, so much!

      I tend to get tongue tied at the best of times, so combined with singing in a foreign language and major nerves, I somehow managed to splutter my way through the fast parts haha.. well, at least laugh over them!

      Are you studying Mandarin yourself?

      Like

      1. funicular · ·

        Thanks so much for your kind replies TTT. It’s always interesting to read about the next stage of your unique journey 😀

        I especially loved this entry, not only because it gave me an opportunity to link a totally irrelevant Taiwanese song, but mainly because of your wonderful description of slogging through a foreign language. That sort of perseverance and preparedness to fail can be applied to many other aspects of life. Personally, it’s always good to be reminded of that.

        My chinese school days are long gone. I can still speak fairly basic mandarin, but my literacy skills are appalling now. I have to admit, however, that your dedication to learning chinese has on more than one occasion tempted me to crack open those dusty old CSL textbooks. But then uni course work gets in the way. At least, that’s my lame excuse

        I am usually far too eager to force others to check out music reflecting my weird and random taste, but luckily I can avoid inflicting that on you because I’m pretty ignorant of the mandarin music scene. Probably has something to do with my crap mandarin. But there is a song by Cheer Chen called “The Meaning of Travelling,” which I’ve always liked. It’s a fairly slow and chilled out song, which I believe is typical of most taiwanese indie pop. Don’t know if this is your thing though?

        Lyrics, pinyin, and translation here: http://sr.soliloqui.com/female-chencheer-luxingdeyiyi.php

        Like

      2. Hi! Oh, somehow your most message go caught in the spam filter- so apologies for the late reply! I’m so glad I caught it- it gave me a big smile and laugh! I like the way you write- you should start a blog yourself if you haven’t already!

        Thank you again for the encouragement, I *really* appreciate it!

        So you also have attended Chinese school? I think above all speaking ability is most important, so don’t be hard on yourself! I imagine that once I stop daily tingxie (remember that gem?) and needing to write essays and the like, I will probably for the most part lose my ability to write. I have a scarily bad memory, so even if I take a week off school, I forget a huge bulk! So knowing that I can’t be at school forever, nor will I ever have so much time to dedicate to studying (at least, writing), I will probably find myself in the same boat as you!

        I have a friend who is fluent speaking, but can’t read at all. He uses his Mandarin in his job here, and if he ever needs to read something gets a colleague to help him out! I think there’s probably a lot of people that learned to speak but never write.

        It’s always hard to motivate yourself to open up a text book, but maybe if you want to study how to read/grammar again you can just read articles online, comic books, or the subtitles on television shows… Sorry I should not give this advice, as I do none of these things myself. Which is terrible! I really should dedicate more time to my studies and branching out from “textbook Mandarin”. Especially as I’m finding is totally useless at times.

        Ehhh, music is a totally subjective thing so be proud of yours! I probably would give myself a self description of “weird and random”, so can appreciate such descriptors, so “inflict” away! Thank you for the song suggestion! I will check it out later- I can’t wait!

        I always joke that I like to torture myself with things which I find challenging! Whilst I’m late to the game, foreign languages is something I’ve come late to the game to, but now love (and sometimes hate haha)! For me, well, based on both my experience of learning Japanese and Mandarin, once you learn the basic ropes of the language, the first stage of learning isn’t too hard. But then after you’ve progressed from the very beginner stage, I kind of hit this wall where you’ve moved on from the really simple stuff, and onto more complex content but are

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  2. funicular · · Reply

    Hey TTT, just forgot to recommend one of my favourite songs ever. Not sure if you’ve heard it, but it’s called “Island’s Sunrise” by Fire Ex, a popular Taiwanese punk rock band. They wrote it during last year’s Sunflower movement as a tribute to all the brave Taiwanese youth who occupied the legislature for 23 days in protest at the government. I love this song because it highlights how the next generation are genuinely concerned about their country and how determined they are to do something about it. It gives one lots of hope for the future.

    Unfortunately, the song is completely sung in Taiwanese and probably doesn’t help your Mandarin studies at all! But but there is an english subbed version here:

    So if you have a spare moment, please check it out!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers for enlightening me to this song! What a beautiful sentiment, and a poetic keepsake of such an important event in Taiwan’s recent history.

      I can’t say I knew of this song, so am most appreciative of the share!

      In regards to Sunflower Movement, I think the perseverance all the protesters showed is incredibly admirable. It would make you hopeful thinking how proactive and passionate these youths are.

      Young people are often cast as apathetic and uninvolved in the political and social spheres, however, that completely discounts the efforts of those who are- such as those involved in the Sunflower Movement.

      I really should make a greater effort to listen to more Mandarin songs, let alone it will help my learning, but to come across some wonderful music.
      Please let me know if you have any more recommendations! 😀

      Like

  3. Good stuff TTT ! I admire your courage, I would never be able sing a video in front of a class, let alone online ! Should be proud of that if anything.

    Also, everytime I seem to visit your site you page views seems to go up by about 1000 ! :O

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi there!

      😀 Thank you so very much nameless supporter! Cheers for the encouragement, I really appreciate it!

      Haha, I’m sure if you bit the gun you could do it too. I didn’t really have much of a choice but to perform in front of the class, however I’m lucky to be with a supportive class and teacher. In terms of loading it up online, originally I promised some friends I would show them as I thought they could get a good laugh from it. But then I thought, ah stuff it, I’m just going to pop it on my blog. With an entry like this I didn’t expect to get to much interest (I’m surprised *anyone* wants to watch me sing!), so only thought a handful of people would end up seeing it anyway!

      I just figure that this whole “Typing to Taipei” thing is about being completely open and just “me”, so if I ever think “ahh, maybe I shouldn’t write/upload this or that” then that’s *exactly* what I should do! I try to “challenge” myself here, so I thought if I’m going to be genuine with working towards this goal then I have to do some thing that might be a bit embarrassing. But I’m pretty good at laughing at myself- which is a good thing as I tend to be very unco and awkward sometimes (unco= Aussie speak for uncoordinated!) Haha, I think I must like to torture myself a bit 😛

      Oh wonderful, thank you for being a return visitor! That’s very kind:)

      Haha yes I’ve been getting a bit more traffic lately which has been a nice surprise. I’ve started to share my posts on some Taiwan-related Facebook groups and that’s brought in most of the numbers.

      Do you have a blog yourself?

      Like

      1. Oh god, I truly don’t know when to stop writing! Apologies for the lengthy reply! Haha.

        Like

  4. Hello TTT,

    Stumbled upon your blog. I’m also learning Mandarin! Yes, the road to language learning is fraught with embarrassments, but the more there are, the better you learn I find! It seems like the traumatizing moments really make the new information stick, haha! I’ve have my share of embarrassing moments. One time, I was listening to someone talk and wondered why they kept saying water bottle (shui3 ping2) over and over again. The person was actually talking about “level” (水平).

    Let’s keep learning! 😀

    Like

    1. Hi Tiffany!

      Thank you so much for your comment, and for stumbling upon my blog! Lovely to hear from you ^^

      That’s awesome you’re leaning Mandarin! Have you been studying for long? You’re so right about the “traumatising moments” helping new info stick! I guess once you make a “mistake” or engage in something memorable, you’re less likely to ever forget it. From now on I shall just communicate through song 😛

      hahaha I like your little story! That sounds like an easy enough mistake to make! Who knows, maybe they’re an ardent water bottle collector as well 🙂

      Good luck with your studies and thank you again for the read, like and comment! 😀

      Like

      1. I have slowed down in learning because of my schedule but try to set up a block of 30min dedicated just for learning. I started around a year ago as a casual learner, teaching myself through online resources like Memrise and ChineseClass101. However, in this case, saying when I started is not a good indicator of how much time I actually spent learning, haha! I will work on that. 😉

        Like

      2. Oh that’s super impressive you’re going about it by yourself! You should feel so proud of your perseverance!

        You’re right about “how long have you been studying?” Not being a good indicator of learning. Some people like me are going to school, others like you are learning by themselves. How can you compare that merely based on a timeline?

        Good luck with your studies! Your determination inspires me! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I am also an expat. However, I was born in Taiwan. I was raised as a bilingual kid. So, I didn’t have any problems to speak Mandarin. However, I suck in writings. I tried to learn Chinese writings over years until I gave up attending the classes. I have lived in Taiwan since 2013.

    Like

    1. Hi Ana!

      Thanks for your comment!

      Oh, that’s awesome you grew up bilingual! I wish I could go back in time and learn Japanese from when I was born (my mum is Japanese).

      As I mentioned to another person here, I think speaking is of the greatest importance, so at least you’ve got that down! It’s too bad writing hasn’t worked out but don’t be too hard on yourself. Who knows you might give it another try along the track and that time it’ll stick 🙂

      Good luck!!

      Like

  6. I love how you ended this with a little hope. That’s one thing all we Chinese learners need ad nauseum. 😀

    I love the duibuqi song! It was stuck in my head all summer!

    Also I never got what the deal was with teachers making students sing etc. I think performing is a very specialized skill. Though speaking is a form of performing, it’s not as on-the-spot as being asked to stand up and present or, even worse, perform. I think some people have the skill, some don’t, and it doesn’t necessarily evaluate your ability to speak a language. Thoughts are still in the works on this.

    Looking forward to reading more!

    Like

    1. Hi Mikel! Thanks a bunch for your comment!

      I try end on a bit of a hopeful note whenever I write about study/life worries, lest I leave the reader and myself feeling a bit down!

      That’s a really interesting point you make! As a former teacher I learned all about adapting lessons to the different needs of learners. Especially considering the different “types” of learners (etc visual, kinetic etc) you really have to shape your teaching to the learners (not the other way around!)

      However, it seems in the grand majority of these Mandarin language programs it’s quite structured, with little room for flexibility. Which is unfortunate, as this can really make learning quite dry at times!

      Particularly when faced with something, like singing, that people may not be comfortable with, it’s all too easy for students to disengage, and worse, feel anxious.

      I think it’s important for teachers to make accommodations for students if they really can’t go through with the activity.

      For me it was quite a simple case of lacking self confidence. So I’m glad I did it in the end (not that I had a choice really….). But I don’t think we really had much leeway, as we had to perform something.

      (Wow, I haven’t expressed my point of view as a (former) teacher in a while! Sometimes I forget I used to be one, now that I’m back in the role of a student!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “However, it seems in the grand majority of these Mandarin language programs it’s quite structured, with little room for flexibility. ”

        ^ When I glanced at this first, I thought you were saying that you thought Mandarin was very structured with little room for flexibility. And I totally disagreed. Of course, upon rereading it I realized you were saying nothing of the sort. But it opened up one big thought about Putonghua.

        Have you ever studied 成語 Chengyu? Those little four-word sentences that express “a world of meaning?” They’re still on my to-do list. The main device in chengyu is simplification and density. They take out a lot of words so the meaning can fit in a four-word structure. In the end you have, for instance, 有錢有給, “When you have money you can pay me,” but literally “have money have give.”

        In the end, Mandarin actually has very little grammar. So it is an awful shame that so many lessons are so structured. It doesn’t leave room to let you appreciate the simple intuitiveness of the language.

        Like

      2. Oh, and another thing! A glitch caused my name-link to send you to 73,000 still, though it is an old blog of mine. I now blog at http://mrschliemann.wordpress.com

        Like

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