I had developed an childhood advantage in learning Chinese, as I heard a lot of Mandarin whilst I was growing up.
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My father spoke Mandarin, although even I could discern that he did so with a pronounced United states accent. He was a professor associated with political science, specializing in China, and our home was frequently full of Chinese guests.
I learned early that Chinese was a tonal vocabulary. I knew how to say hello, and my father — and the guests — were quick to correct me if I didn’t get the shades just right. They would chortle and show me that I had just said, “You are a good horse. ” Then they would point out the difference in the tones between what I meant to say and what had caused their mirth. With this kind of correction, I learned rapidly.
At least that was Mandarin. Eventually, I went away to college. During my sophomore year, I accidentally learned Cantonese once i was supposed to be learning Mandarin. This happened like this:
I was in Paris, france, studying French for the school year when my family made plans to look the Far East for the summer. My dad arranged for me to join the family in Hk. He also made arrangements with a prominent language school in Paris for me to take a series of private training in Chinese.
I hadn’t acquired much vocabulary as a child, so I was quite pleased with the lessons. I was tutored by an elderly Chinese language gentleman who took great aches and pains over my pronunciation. I studied with him for a couple of months before it was time for me to go off to Hong Kong.
When I met my father in Hong Kong, I greeted him politely as the old gentleman had trained me to. My father looked empty. I guessed that maybe the accent wasn’t so great after all. However started counting aloud, figuring at least he would recognize that. He did. He said, “But you’re counting within Cantonese! ”
It turned out that every thing I had learned was Cantonese. We figured out that the old Chinese man back in Paris must have needed the cash and so he pulled the made of woll over the eyes of the administrators on the school. My father contacted the school, informed them the story, and got their money back.
I studied Mandarin with another tutor during that summer, and am found that the Cantonese I had discovered wasn’t completely worthless. Although the 2 languages are pronounced very differently, they both use several shades. The practice in recognizing plus pronouncing tones came in very handy.