Understanding Chinese?

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Understanding Chinese?

Postby silvermace » Fri Nov 18, 2011 6:01 am UTC

So I'm a native english speaker but I'm conversant in mandarin chinese. Both my parents speak mandarin and I've always spoken to them in mandarin throughout my life. When I watch movies I pick up 90% of the words and can figure out the other 10%, same with conversations and stuff between other fluent chinese speakers.

Unfortunately, whenever I listen to a song in chinese, it gets so much more difficult and I can only take out very very simple words. Les Miserable in chinese, Disney songs in Chinese are just two that I've noticed that i'm having an extreme difficulty picking up what they're saying. like instead of understanding 90% i only understand 10 and the other 90% make no sense.

HOWEVER, some songs I can understand e.g. Tong Hua by Guang Liang.

although some of his other songs I can't even though the tempo is about the same (this goes with a few other artists).

The only thing I can think of is that either they're saying words with an unfamiliar inflection/accent and my mind can't decipher the words unless i've heard the song over and over and over and over again...

Do you have a better explanation?

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Re: Understanding Chinese?

Postby Derek » Fri Nov 18, 2011 6:37 am UTC

Pure speculation, I have no experience with these types of languages, but is it possible that the music conflicts with the tones of the words in some way?

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Re: Understanding Chinese?

Postby Anonymously Famous » Fri Nov 18, 2011 8:19 pm UTC

I've sometimes found it more difficult to understand songs in Spanish vs. spoken Spanish. Maybe it has something to do with the music and rhythms in songs instead of the more natural "rhythms" of conversations.

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Re: Understanding Chinese?

Postby notzeb » Fri Nov 18, 2011 10:23 pm UTC

I can't understand the lyrics of many songs in English (my native language) without listening to them over and over and over. And even then, sometimes I still need someone to point out that I've misheard them all along.

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Re: Understanding Chinese?

Postby Plasmic-Turtle » Sat Nov 19, 2011 5:22 pm UTC

notzeb wrote:I can't understand the lyrics of many songs in English (my native language) without listening to them over and over and over. And even then, sometimes I still need someone to point out that I've misheard them all along.
Yeh, this! You're competing with the sound of the music to try to hear the lyrics, the rhythm is different, they try to rhyme words that don't normally rhyme and thus pronounce them slightly oddly, and I swear many singers just don't speak properly when they're singing... I wouldn't worry too much. If you can read any mandarin, or perhaps read english-alphabet versions of mandarin words, perhaps you could look up the lyrics online?

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Re: Understanding Chinese?

Postby Iulus Cofield » Sat Nov 19, 2011 11:11 pm UTC

I had a phonology professor who, after I said that I thought prosody (suprasegmentals like tone and stress) didn't seem all that important for ESL/EFL learners compared to segments (vowels and consonants), set me straight by explaining that even when they could distinguish perfectly and produce segments very well, native speakers often had trouble understanding them if they couldn't get the prosody right. I would guess trouble understanding song lyrics has a lot to do with this, especially for a highly tonal language like Mandarin.

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Re: Understanding Chinese?

Postby Kenrou » Sun Nov 20, 2011 1:27 am UTC

Sung Japanese can also differ quite a bit from from the spoken variety (Guess it doesn't help that I like goth rock/metal bands like ALI PROJECT and Yousei Teikoku), so even if it's something I would understand in a normal conversation I don't always pick up on it in a song. This holds true to a lesser degree for English as well, even though I consider myself mostly fluent. Reading lyrics while listening definitely helps, since you can pick up different tricks they use to fit words to melodies. It also increases your reading speed, at least if you listen to faster music. I can only imagine what music does to the tones of Chinese, but in general music can do some strange things to languages.

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Re: Understanding Chinese?

Postby Kizyr » Sun Nov 20, 2011 2:50 am UTC

Also having more experience with Japanese, I'd say that it's an issue of how much spoken, regular language has the context of the given situation behind it to explain -- language via lyrics can be very different.

I find Japanese songs really hard to understand. Most pop songs usually have very... fluff... sort of lyrics, and the remaining pop songs, rock songs, and some hip-hop, lean more towards describing imagery and such leaving the meaning up to interpretation. (Songs that are trying to make a point, say, like some rap songs around, oh, '96-'02 can go in the opposite direction and use a lot of specific terms that require knowing more about the culture/politics to get the context behind them.)

I suppose the main thing is that there's a totally different context behind spoken/written language and song lyrics, which is more stark the less songs are specific.

Though, I have a relatively easier time understanding songs in Spanish... So (personally) I don't find that it holds the same across all languages. KF

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Re: Understanding Chinese?

Postby LilyTheLlama » Sun Nov 20, 2011 6:06 pm UTC

I'm a native Chinese speaker but listening to songs is really different from everyday conversation... I can hardly ever understand any of Jay Chou's songs fully. Don't worry!

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Re: Understanding Chinese?

Postby Torinmr » Wed Nov 23, 2011 1:50 am UTC

Chinese is a tonal language, so in Chinese many near-homophones are distinguished only by the (relative) pitch of the syllables; for example, the syllable "ma" (rhymes with saw) correponds to the following different words, depending on its tone:

rising tone: hemp 麻
level tone: mother 妈
falling tone: to scold 骂
falling and then rising tone: horse 马
neutral tone: (indicates a question) 吗

When someone sings a sentence in Chinese, the pitch of the melody replaces the tones, and so there is no way to distinguish between all of these near-homophones except for context, which is why you have trouble understanding song lyrics. Native speakers also have this problem to an extent, which is why Chinese music videos generally have Chinese subtitles.

The interesting thing is, since you grew up hearing the language, you probably rarely even notice the tones in normal conversation. But if you're, like me, a white guy who started learning this at age 16, you have to be VERY aware of tones if you want your pronunciation to be understood by anybody.

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