— Note: If you just want to watch the video of me rapping in Chinese, scroll to the bottom —
I tried to start studying Mandarin similar to the way I learned Japanese.
I downloaded some Anki decks and started to studying them. Then, I quickly realized this wasn’t going to work.
Or I was going to go crazy.
See, with Japanese – I just studied the most commonly used 1,000 or 1,500 words in the language, skimmed through one book on grammar, and then spent a lot of time doing language exchanges, trying to piece together sentences.
You can learn Japanese that way. It’s hard work. But its possible.
I’m pretty sure I would’ve gone crazy doing it like that.
I tried it for a couple of weeks – but I quickly realized that wasn’t the way to do things in this language.
This is mainly because the difficulties in the two languages are much different.
The difficulty in speaking Japanese is in its grammar and honorifics. NOT its pronunciation. Japanese pronunciation is fairly easy. The only sound that’s really different from English is their ‘r’ sound.
However, in Mandarin, the difficulty is NOT the grammar. It’s all pronunciation. There’s at least a dozen sounds that don’t exist in English at all. And another dozen that almost sound like English sounds, but are a bit different. Then, there’s tones. Say “ma” a certain way and it means “mother”. Say it in a different tone and its “horse”. Say it in a different tone, and it signifies that you’re asking a question.
There’s five of these tones. And, they change based on the tones around them.
For a quick introduction to Mandarin tones – here just watch this video. It’s hilarious. It’s also spot-on.
Yeah, studying “vocab” in Mandarin is a tough way to get started in the language.
But, then what? What to do, what to do…
I got lucky.
Right when I was just getting started in taking Mandarin seriously, I stumbled upon Idahosa Ness and his Flow Series and Flow Methodology of learning a new language… through rap music.
At first it sounded a bit gimmicky to me. Learning to rap in another language? Why is that beneficial?
But, then I took Idahosa’s free 5-day course on the introduction to flow and I realized he was spot on, and he has science on his side.
See, Idahosa reckons that every language has its own flow: its own rhythm and sounds. As native-speakers of whatever language we start learning first, we internalize the flow and rhythm of it.
And this Flow is key.
It’s why we can listen to song, watch a movie, hear a sentence, etc in our native language and despite regional accent differences, still understand all of it. We know the flow.
This also has implications for any accent we have difficulty understanding – they are usually using a different flow.
Once you’ve really internalized the flow of a language, you can easily add new vocabulary as well. Think about it: do you learn new vocabulary in your native language from reading definitions or from hearing the word used in a sentence?
Yeah, it’s the latter.
So, the flow may be the most important thing to get down in a new language – yet, it’s something most language learners don’t focus on at all. They, like me when I studied Japanese, focus on vocabulary and grammar.
But, vocabulary and grammar come natural to native speakers. Or at least it seems so.
And, the idea behind this whole flow thing it that once you’ve really internalized the flow of a new language you don’t need to study vocabulary or grammar – you can add those things in naturally through the proper flow.
Look, here’s a video to try to show you what I’m talking about: what English sounds like to non-native speakers. Check out this video, it’s pretty funny. It’s gibberish spoken in the flow of English – in that sense it’s almost intelligible to English speakers.
Actually, here’s another good example from Russell Peters – he’s pretty good at getting the flow of other languages down and it works well in his act.
And, this flow stuff is especially important in Chinese. Where if your tones are incorrect, you’re unintelligible.
This has implications across languages really. Where the age-old adage holds: you don’t learn a language from a textbook, you learn it from actually speaking it.
With his flow series, courses Idahosa aims to teach the flow of a language through music, first you learn the new sounds, then you learn the tones, then you learn some songs in order to put it all together and add the rhythm of the language in.
It’s more like dancing, and less about memorization and cramming for an exam.
For the record, this isn’t easy – have you ever tried to learn to dance? Or even just watched something like Dancing with the Stars?
Then, you know what kind of work is involved in learning entirely new rhythms and being able to perform then fluidly.
That’s what language is.
It’s more like dancing, and less about memorization and cramming for an exam. Well, at least it should be anyway.
Like Idahosa says himself (here, where he raps in 8 languages):
“if language is sound, and sound is music, well that must mean that music is language.”
So, I gave it a shot. Memorizing a 16 bar rap verse in English is a piece of cake… especially compared to what it took to memorize this: a 16 bar rap verse in Mandarin.
Weeks and weeks of Idahosa hammering me on my tones. Lots of re-dos and what-the-fucks.
It’s anything but easy…. but here it is: me rapping in Mandarin Chinese.
(For the record, the song is Beijing Wanbao 北京晚报 by Yin san er 阴三儿)