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To Speak, Perchance To 'Dream In Chinese'

When Deborah Fallows went to live in China with her husband, she was armed with a few semesters of Mandarin lessons. But when she got to Shanghai, she found she couldn't recognize or speak a single word of what she'd been studying.

Fallows writes about her journey through the Chinese language -- and her many missteps along the way -- in her new book, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language.

Fallows -- who has a Ph.D. in linguistics and speaks six languages -- knew that learning Chinese as an adult wouldn't be easy. "Chinese is considered one of the world's difficult languages," she tells NPR's Melissa Block, "along with Japanese and Arabic and Russian."

Even with her background in languages, Fallows says learning Chinese was particularly challenging because it was so dissimilar from all other languages she had studied.

"I didn't feel like I had anything to hang my hat on with this language," Fallows explains. "It just bore no resemblance to romance languages, Germanic languages, Japanese -- anything that I'd ever approached before."

Shi, Shi, Shi And Shi

Chinese only has 400 unique syllables -- that's 1/10th of the number of the unique syllables in the English language. That means a lot of Chinese words sound alike to the untrained ear.

"Homonyms run rampant," Fallows says. (Think: "seal" the animal and "seal" as in "to securely close".) "In Chinese, you have just a plethora of things like that," she says.

The English language clusters consonants together, which results in a variety of complex syllables such as "stretch" and "plump." But Chinese syllables don't combine that way, so the only way to tell the difference between two otherwise identical syllables is by listening to the tone and the context.

To illustrate the many possible meanings of a single syllable, Fallows points to a playful, Chinese tongue twister called "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." On the page, the poem is made up of many different Chinese characters, but when read aloud in Mandarin, all of the syllables are different tonal variations of the syllable shi.

"The amazing thing ... is that you can tell this entire story using one syllable," Fallows says. "It's a real challenge to listen to -- especially if your ear is not accustomed to listening [for] and using tones."

In "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den," shi -- spoken in varying tones -- means: lions, market, the number 10, eat, stone -- and more. It makes for a fun tongue twister, but mastering a tonal language can be a frustrating experience for a non-native speaker.

Fallows recounts an embarrassing experience she had one day in Shanghai -- that all started with an inexplicable craving for cheese. Wanting something -- anything -- with cheese, Fallows went to the local Shanghai Taco Bell, where she was greeted by a young Chinese man wearing a sombrero and a velvet vest.

"I had practiced very hard what I was going to ask him," Fallows said. "I wanted to do takeout."

Her tones weren't very good at that point, though, so Fallows' request for "takeout" -- dabao -- was met with a blank stare from the Taco Bell employee. Fallows tried saying dabao with every combination of tones she could think of -- rising tones, falling tones -- and when that didn't work, she started pointing at the menu, and then miming the action of walking out the door with a bag of food. After a consultation with several other employees, finally -- eureka! Yes, dabao! Yes, of course, they did takeout.

It's hard to say what Fallows was actually saying to the Chinese men if not the word for "takeout"; she says there are a number of possibilities -- "some of them more embarrassing than others." The word for "hug" is close, as is the word for "newspaper." No wonder the blank stares.

Forget Your 'Please' And 'Thank Yous'

To someone who grew up learning all the "pleases" and "thank yous" of polite English, Chinese as it is spoken between family and friends can sound extremely terse and direct.

"I felt I was being very blunt, very abrupt and even often very rude," Fallows says. Chinese, when spoken between two people who are close with one another, leaves out what Fallows calls the "grace notes" -- please, thank you, no thank you.

For example, if a friend offers you a glass of water, and you don't want a glass of water, the proper response translates as: "Don't need" or "Don't want."

There is a lot of "padding and softness" that Fallows says is woven into our everyday English, even when addressing people we know well. But in Chinese, "pleases" and "thank yous" are reserved for people with whom a degree of formality is expected.

"If you're inserting these niceties, these softeners ... the Chinese will see that as actually setting up a distance between you and the person you're talking to," Fallows explains. Trying to be polite can actually come off as offensive.

These are just a few of the many cultural and linguistic puzzles Fallows describes in Dreaming in Chinese, as she recounts her struggle to master the countless nuances of communication in another culture.

The few times Fallows actually dreamt in Chinese, she said it was a frustrating and "odd dictionary dream" in which she was looking for a word -- trying to communicate, but unable to make others understand.

Basically, "the story of my life in China," she says with a laugh.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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