Monday, August 29, 2011

Mandarin Mondays: 你好

Babies greeting each other with a universal cheek pinch.
Perhaps both boys' cheeks have been pinched too often
by Chinese Grandmas greeting them.
Greetings are usually one of the first things you learn when studying a foreign language because how are you going to have a conversation if you can't start one? While it is very good to know how to greet someone, or respond to their greeting, that doesn't always mean that greetings are the easiest thing to learn. Often they can be complicated, because how you normally start a conversation varies a lot culturally, and often there is no good direct translation for what a phrase means.

When you see someone any time of the day here you can say, "Nǐ hǎo (你好)." This literally means "you good," but culturally it means something much closer to our "hello." You are not really asking how they are doing, and they won't respond by telling you how they are doing, but will usually just say, "Nǐ hǎo (你好)," in response.

Now there is also the formal way to say hello, "Nín hǎo (您好)" and the way to say hello to more than one person, "nǐmen hǎo (你们)," but these are rarely used in daily conversation. In fact while these phrases are the most grammatically accurate, unless you are in a very formal setting, you will likely sound out of place using them. This isn't something you can learn from a textbook, but from everyday life, or perhaps a really good Chinese teacher or friend.

Exchanging greetings at English corner
Similarly, while English speakers usually ask "How are you," after saying hello, the direct translation of "how are you" (Nǐ hǎo ma, 你好吗) is almost never used here. Actually, I think outside of a Chinese lesson, I have only heard it spoken by foreigners here. It is much more common to use the phrase "Nǐ zěnme yàng? (你怎么样?)." This means something like our phrase "how are you doing," while the literal translation comes out quite strange: "You how way?"

The Chinese people here have trouble with our greetings too. Most of the children here have learned the following greeting (even if it is all of the English they know): "Hi, how are you? I am fine, sanks." They do not have the th sound in Mandarin, so most people cannot pronounce it correctly, much like we have trouble with the multitude of sounds in Mandarin that English does not possess.

At least we are not alone in our language difficulties. Hopefully, the Chinese people will give us grace as we work continually on improving our Mandarin.

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