Pareto Chinese: Say Xi's

Pareto Chinese: Say Xi's
Illustration for Atoms vs. Bits by Helen Leon

In honor of Chinese New Year, please enjoy this tiny Chinese lesson

Among a certain kind of person, there’s a pressure to have some opinion on China. Not the usual mainstream takes, but something that hints at a deeper understanding. This is largely hopeless because China, like all big countries, is inscrutable, and even Chinese people generally don’t understand it.[1] (Thus the same is true for Americans, who generally don’t understand America and we periodically end up looking ridiculous.)

Rather than keeping up with the China news du jour, there’s an ambition to instead go deeper and learn Mandarin Chinese. This sounds good in theory, but in practice requires you to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Not that Chinese wouldn’t be nice to have, but the fact is you’re not going to actually learn it. If you’re a monolingual reading this and want to learn another language, learn Spanish because you might really do that. You probably won’t, but at least it’s theoretically possible.

With Chinese on the other hand, I have never seen a Western adult learn to speak it well[2] without having lived in a Chinese-speaking country. This includes people who study it at university.[3] So unless your language plan is less “download Duolingo” and more “relocate continents” you should forget about learning Chinese meaningfully.

Which poses the obvious question: how does one learn Chinese meaninglessly? I’m so glad you asked.

Much of the trickiness of Chinese is that the phonemes have a tough learning curve at first, and without sufficiently good pronunciation and listening it doesn’t matter how much vocabulary or grammar you know.[4] So rather than trying to learn a little bit of Chinese broadly and then immediately becoming lost in any real conversation,[5] instead learn to pronounce the Chinese words that appear in English conversation.

I don’t mean loanwords, you’re not going to impress anyone by saying “typhoon” as “tai-fung”. I mean proper nouns like Tao De Ching (“Dao-De-Jing”) and Shenzhen (“Shen-jen”).[6]

But the way to really make it seem like you understand China with minimal effort is to learn just enough Mandarin to say “Xi”, then stop.

To those in the know, a real “Xi” dropped into English conversation implies a Chinese speaker or at least significant knowledge of Chinese. Meanwhile, the unaware are likely to be impressed by a foreign-sounding consonant said with confidence. Even if pressed, you can admit to studying the pronunciation of “Xi Jinping” specifically and then proceed to regurgitate the discussion from above.

Even among pundits, I’ve heard a wide range of pronunciations, the grossly incorrect “ji” is surprisingly common despite the comparatively better “she” being available.

Though “she” is better, it’s not right similarly to how “L” and “R” are close but not interchangeable in English. It’s a stereotype of native Japanese speakers that they mix “L” and “R” sounds, and to the extent that it’s true, it’s understandable because Japanese does not make a distinction between these sounds.

Before studying Chinese I’d never considered that English could be the same: that there are consonant distinctions I was unaware of. This is in fact the case, as English speakers don’t distinguish between the Chinese “x” and “sh”, both consonants sound like “sh” to us.

Tongue Position for English "sh"
Tongue Position for Chinese "x"
Images from Wikimedia Commons

A bunched-up tongue is used to pronounce the English “sh”, while to pronounce the Chinese “x” the tip of the tongue is down and the middle arches up close to the palate, creating a small opening for air to pass. The result sounds like a “sh”, an “s”, a whistle, and a hiss all combined (listen here).

Try it by putting the tip of your tongue to your lower teeth (same tongue position as “eee”) and pushing slightly so the middle of your tongue raises up a bit. Make a wide grin and blow so you hear a “tire hissing” sound (audio instructions from the Foreign Service Institute here).

Add an “eee” vowel and you’ve got “xi”. For added authenticity, you can do the tone too by using a rising intonation, sounding like a question: “xi?”.

Now you’re ready to show it off in any nearby geopolitical conversations.

That’s it! With less than 10 minutes of effort, you’ll be outshining pundits everywhere, who according to the Pareto principle and my close observation, may have toiled away on China topics for as long as 40 minutes.

Happy Chinese New Year!

  1. And will themselves happily tell you how complicated their “5000 years” of history, culture, and society are. ↩︎

  2. But Mark Zuckerberg learned Chinese! No, not really. Don’t let compliments from well-meaning Chinese people fool you. Mark’s Chinese is at an elementary level, and if that’s the level a brilliant, highly-motivated billionaire can reach with presumably the best private tutors, consider what you’re likely to achieve. That said, I assume some people pull this off, I’ve just never met one. Having a partner who only speaks Chinese would probably work. ↩︎

  3. Chinese Language majors and others who study abroad usually do end up with a good Chinese level. ↩︎

  4. This is the biggest difference I found between taking language classes and learning “in the field”. Language classes often emphasize vocabulary and grammar because that’s what’s amenable to group classes and textbooks. In practice, even if your vocabulary is 50 words and your grammar nonexistent, you can still communicate if the individual words are understandable. ↩︎

  5. In group classes, you get even less pronunciation training than you think. Ironically, your novice classmates will understand your poor pronunciation better than a native speaker would because a novice’s search space is so small. ↩︎

  6. There are tones and retroflex consonants to worry about, but when speaking in English this is overkill. ↩︎

Thanks to Uri, Kaamya, Olof, and Seth for feedback on drafts of this.

A machine's attempt to read this article; do not use as a pronounciation guide

AI Reading of Pareto Chinese: Say Xi

Subscribe to Atoms vs Bits

Receive our weekly posts by email