Have you ever tried to learn something that goes pretty much against every principle you've ever learned? If you speak English and have tried to learn Mandarin, then the answer is yes.
There are many reasons Mandarin is a very difficult language to learn, but these are the reasons I've learned during my first 3 lessons.
1. The sentence structure is completely different than English. They order their words in a very different way.
2. The literal meaning of their words is not what they use them for. For example, the phrase "ma ma hu hu" is how say you or something is just ok/average. The literal meaning, however, is "horse horse tiger tiger". That makes sense right? : ) It's fun to say, though.
3. You thought "there, their, and they're" was difficult? How about háo, hǎo, hāo, and hào. They have tones instead of different spellings and that tiny symbol changes not only the meaning of the word, but also changes the inflection you use to say the word.
There's a lot more reasons I believe the language is incredibly difficult, but those are the 3 major struggles so far. At least while it's difficult, I find it very interesting!
Oh, and I got very excited the other day because our Sherpa delivery guy (food delivery guy - another post) knocked on our door again after he delivered our food because he forgot to leave ketchup for Todd's french fries. Todd opened the door and the delivery guy said "du ìbuqǐ" (pronounced "do-boo-chee"). It took it one second too long for me to process it, but as soon as Todd closed the door, I yelled "He said "I'm sorry"! You should have said "méi guānxi"!"(pronounced "may-goo on-she" and it means "That's all right") Then of course, me being me, I yelled "I KNOW MANDARIN!!" I was very proud of myself.
Basically I probably will never be able to carry on a conversation with someone in Mandarin after this class unless I take a more intense class, because to understand someone speaking in sentence form I lean my head forward and focus so hard I look like my eyes are bugging out of my head. Plus, the person speaking must be saying one word per one to two seconds, and in Shanghai, people talk a mile a minute! I don't understand how people understand each other's tones because it's ridiculously fast, and like I said, it's only thing when you speak English quickly because no matter what tone you're using, you can understand the words, though you may not understand the full emotion behind them. When speaking Mandarin, if you don't hear the tone, you could completely miss the meaning of a word because the tone differentiates the meaning for many words.
I know just enough to be dangerous and to make it even harder to get around. By that, I mean because I've learned how you're supposed to pronounce the different combinations of letters (in Mandarin it's initials and finals), I try to use the proper pronunciation for streets when I get into cabs. And I thought the drivers had a hard time understanding me when I didn't know anything... they have a hay day with me now!
I recently grabbed a cab that was stopped at a red light. I hopped in and read the intersection I wanted to go to from the map on my iPhone. The light turned green and the driver started driving. I again repeated the two street names to the driver. He proceeded to pull over in such a way that made me read his thought "This is going to take a while. I'm going to need to pull over to figure out where I'm going". After apparently butchering the names of the streets using my newly acquired knowledge of the language, I showed the driver the intersection on my phone. He repeated the street names and they sounded COMPLETELY different than what I had said. They were so different, in fact, I said "dui" (means "yes", pronounced "dway") and then sat with my iPhone map open, tracking where we were going because I thought he was taking me to an entirely different intersection. To make matters worse, the driver thought my pronunciation attempt was so bad, while driving he started repeating the names of the two streets over and over. I kept telling him yes, until I realized he wanted me to repeat him to say them properly. He didn't let me stop until I pronounced them properly 3 times in a row. Then he of course laughed... hard. It was humorous, I mean, the asian girl with the thick american accent trying to overly enunciate Shanghai street names. At least this driver was nice and was truly trying to help, regardless of his laughing.
I'll keep everyone posted on my Mandarin speaking adventures as they come up, but until then, Zàijiàn! (That means "goodbye", but literally it's to see (you) later)