Learning to say No

It is difficult to learn to say No in Mandarin. And I mean that in a literal way, not the figurative abstract concept of difficulty saying No to things, people, etc. I was squirming behind my closed doors as I hear the doubleOs speaking to my mom in the living room. O’s mandarin has improved alot since stepping in primary school, but little o is still figuring his way around the language.

He is very clear when he says No, and Cannot, Don’t Want, in English. Very very simple. But in Mandarin, the word No does not exist on its own. A literal translation probably brings us to a “不” (bu), and I can feel my eyes squint at the incomplete word / sentence… like, “bu … what?” It is not even because it sounds rude or abrupt, but because it is non-sense, it makes no sense in the language like a floating little bit of trash in the ocean. (I’m a visual person, so that character appears very buoyant to me because it looks so “spread out”.. hahahahhaha) Even when put into context, it still does not stand on its own, it just feels floaty and lost.

So here are the kinds of 不s in our lives…

不行 buxing – cannot, no way, that cannot/does not work, not able to (you only know which one it means when put into context)

不可以 bukeyi – cannot, cannot/does not work (in a gentler way than above)

不要 buyao – don’t want

不会 buhui – don’t know how to

不知道 buzhidao – don’t know

不懂 budong – don’t know (I didn’t know this was rude until I moved to China!!!)

Oh, and curiously enough, I forgot that there is also a 没 (mei) which means No whatever (similarly it makes absolutely no sense when it stands alone on its own).

没有 meiyou – don’t have

还没 haimei – not yet (and this is already very colloquial, it has to be paired with more characters to be a proper sentence).

Imagine a conversation with Oscar…

“Can you put on your shoes? We are going out.”
“No.” (Simple, right!!!) But in Chinese, it’ll be “不可以” bukeyi. When he answers in English, it is so easy. But when he answers in Mandarin, it really makes me wonder how the heck we learnt which one to choose from the list above!!!!

“Do you want to put on your shoes now?”
“No!” (The correct answer here would be 不要! buyao)

“Are you able to put on your shoes?” He sometimes still struggle with some of his shoes.
“No!” (Kiddy answer would be 不可以 bukeyi. For us adults, sometimes we say 不行 buxing. But there are actually even more complex phrases to more correctly answer this question… )

“Do you know how to put on this pair of shoes?”
“No!” (Should be 不会 buhui)

“Do you know where your shoes are?”
“No.” (Should be 不知道 buzhidao)

“Do you have your shoes with you?”
“No.” (Should be 没有 meiyou)

Shouting from the kitchen, “have you put on your shoes?”
“No!” (Should be 还没 haimei)

Language is really a culture that we cultivate or it grows into us. I cannot imagine how we learnt all the different Nos, but it seems like a great deal we survived that. Oliver now knows how to use the correct phrase, but his pronunciation (more like intonation) is still not great. It is quite fun to hear two of them talking, O likes to ask, “Oscar, 要不要,要不要?” yaobuyao yaobuyao (do you want? x2) which is nice to know he got the phrase correct, but the pronunciation is so funny it sounds more like “shake your butt shake your butt”. hahahahha

Ah well, must find a technique to make their lives easier in mastering this.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Fascinating…. Language really is a cultural extension. I was just recently trying to explain in English the meaning of a simple, two word Japanese song title (無き曲), and suddenly realized that it referred to something that was going to require a half-hour explanation. I wonder if the complicated approach to negatives is something Japanese adopted from Chinese culture… undulations of expression to avoid the abruptness of the word, “no” (いいえ).

    Intonation is why I was so reluctant to speak Thai… just too many ways to embarrass myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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