Mandarin made me smarter

Since I was an adolescent I have believed myself to be intelligent, but to have a bad memory. For years it has been a tenet of my self conception, an article of faith that I cling to when I make an error or misplace my keys. Give me a formula sheet, I’ll solve your problem; ask me Planck’s constant, I’ll stare at the ground. This intellectual imbalance finds its expression most clearly in my vocabulary (English, my native tongue, aside).

From Latin and French through Greek to Sanskrit and Hindi (and via a slew of wonky medieval interlopers), I will parse your sentence, decline your noun, and conjugate your verb. Though here’s the catch. Without a dictionary I’m often stumped as to the meaning. I look up a word or five, say ‘oh yes, I did know that’, write it down, and then promptly forget it until next time.

If you know anything about Mandarin (I didn’t), you probably know that it is a tonal language. When, on something of a whim, I spent 25,000 Rupees and 14 Sunday afternoons on a beginners’ course in the language, I was going in blind. As globalisation falters, minds narrow, and the gyre widens, I ventured out of my Indo-European comfort zone and found myself bombarded with… sounds.

Charts representing pitch, no grammar (really) of which to speak and, most befuddling for me, instead of an alphabet, pictures. To break it down, Mandarin is more than just a litany of strange sounds, each sound can be made in 5 different tones of varying pitch which radically alter its meaning. If tones aren’t your strong point, you’ll find no respite in the characters. Intricate and aesthetically beguiling, Mandarin characters are less letters and more pictures; each one a word of its own, and there are more than ten thousand to acquaint yourself with. While India may have over ten thousand Gods, at least Devanagari has only 47 characters.

You cannot figure these words out. There is no etymological logic here; a certain tone does not indicate a certain part of speech and the characters, though pictoral, are abstract and discrete. The only way is to remember them. All of them. Bemusement gave way to horror, which was usurped by despondence before, slowly, in snatches, came progress.

Often nursing a hangover, I would decouple myself from Madame Saturday and trudge to the local Church-cum-School where the classes took place. A Jesuit classroom may have been the venue but my reformation could not be stopped; slowly but surely a neural revolution (that’s what comes after the cultural one) took hold.

I had to think differently. Changing language from a logical and academic pursuit, I had to reach into depths of my brain and reignite rarely trodden neural corridors that connected objects with sounds and pictures, instead of ideas and concepts. I took up Mandarin after an off-the-cuff remark from a colleague, it changed the way I think. And guess what, nowadays I rarely misplace my keys.

再见


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A few resources which helped me, beside the classes:

The Way of Chinese Characters, 2nd Edition (English and Chinese Edition)
India edition: The Way of Chinese Characters: The Origins of 670 Essential Words

Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese
India edition: Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese

Integrated Chinese 4th Edition, Volume 1 Textbook (Simplified Chinese) (English and Chinese Edition)
India edition: Integrated Chinese Level 1 Part 1 – Character Workbook (Simplified and Traditional characters)

New Practical Chinese Reader Vol. 1 (3rd Ed.): Textbook (W/MP3) (English and Chinese Edition)
India edition: New Practical Chinese Reader vol.1 – Textbook

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