Learning Mandarin through… Nigerian Pidgin?

Mandarin is generally considered one of the hardest languages for English native speakers to pick up. Tones, especially, are noted as one of the biggest roadblocks for English speakers to internalize. My suggestion is, if these concepts are difficult to learn, then instead of learning them in the course of studying Mandarin, where you’re also struggling with all the other new concepts the language throws at you, why not learn these concepts in relative isolation? Enter Nigerian Pidgin English.

Nigerian Pidgin English is one of the many Pidgin Englishes that exist around the world – think Hawaiian Pidgin, Singlish, or Louisiana Creole. (After googling, I found out Creoles and Pidgin languages are two distinct concepts, but I’m conflating the two here because the distinction isn’t pertinent to my point.) Generally speaking, Pidgin languages like a smoothie of language blending in weird and interesting ways – in this case, English mixed in with the local languages. It’s not limited to vocabulary, either – don’t think of Pidgin English as just people speaking with American standard English, but replacing certain words for the local vocabulary. In fact, it can be different to the point of unintelligibility.

Nigerian Pidgin English in particular is relevant to us because it takes some of these concepts that we want to learn in Mandarin and limits it to specifics contexts. Because Nigeria is a big country with multiple demographics, there isn’t just one native language spoken by Nigerians in the way you’d expect like in China or the United States. Accordingly, Nigerian Pidgin also is a blend of these different languages – Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, and probably a bunch more too. There’s even some Portuguese influence for whatever reason. For our purposes, however, there are two main grammatical concepts that translate to Mandarin: tones, and verb conjugations, or in this case, the lack thereof.

Unlearning Verb Conjugations

From my limited knowledge of Pidgin, verbs aren’t conjugated – instead, you have the infinitive form of the verb, and add other words in in front of the verb to change the tense of the verb. That’s a lot of boring detail, so instead, here’s an example that I think will help clarify things.

  • I cry – “I cry”, though depending on the context of the sentence, this can also be used in past tense, e.g
  • Yesterday I cry – “I cried yesterday”
  • I dey cry – roughly the equivalent of “I’m crying”
  • I don cry – “I have cried”
  • I go cry – “I will cry”

The long and short of it, is that for Pidgin, instead of conjugating verbs, we use context like dates or specific grammar words to indicate the tense of the verb. This is really useful in the context of learning Mandarin, because it works pretty much the same way.

Learning Tones

Nigerian Pidgin English is a tonal language, which is pretty cool. My general understanding of the reason why Pidgin is a tonal language is due to the mixing from all the tonal languages in the region, like Yoruba and Igbo. I’m not really privy to all of the nuances of how tones work in Pidgin, but I do have one go to example that really illustrates the usage of tones in context to change the meaning of words in Pidgin. Namely, the word dey.

Dey is used pretty often in Pidgin, and has a lot of different and useful meanings. You can use dey to indicate where something is:

  • “I dey school”, translates to “I’m at school”.

Or, you could use it to indicate the “-ing” form of verbs, as discussed in the section of unlearning verb conjugations:

  • “I dey cry”, means “I’m crying.

It can also just kind of mean something is good, as in it’s doing well.

  • I dey – I’m good. (In the context of a response to a greeting, as if someone asked you, “Hey, how are you doing?” You could reply I dey)

For these three usages of the word dey, we use three different tones – a high tone, a neutral tone, and a low tone. (Side note, I have no idea what the tone system is called formally – when I refer to the high, neutral, and low tones, this is just my personal mental model for how tones work in Pidgin.) The high tone corresponds with the location meaning of dey. Now, you might be asking, “how do I verbalize this high tone?” In fact, I’m not really that great with it either, so forgive me if I’m wrong on any of the details. My personal understanding of this tone is to imagine it as a sustained high note – that is, imagine going “whaaaaaaaaaaat.” As if you were surprised by what someone said. Now incorporate that tone of voice in the word dey. The neutral tone, I think, is self explanatory. You just try to say the word as neutrally as possible, basically like regular speech I guess. That one corresponds to the “-ing” verb usage. Last is the low tone, which you can kind of verbalize as if you were agreeing strongly with someone, and wanted to say a word of affirmation: “mmm. yeah. you’re right.” This one corresponds to the meaning of “I’m good”.

So how is this relevant to Chinese? The specific tones in Pidgin don’t match 1:1 with Mandarin, but it’s really useful for internalizing a sense of tones for words, instead of the common fallback, which is to just kinda ignore the tones and read the romanized transliterations of Chinese words, hoping people understand you by context. I think with Pidgin, what makes it easier is that not all words rely on tone – you can say a lot how you would normally say it (changing your grammar to fit Pidgin, of course) and it’ll generally still be understood. Of course, you’re going to sound like a foreigner, but that’s to be expected, because you are. But if you can get someone to practice with, you can practice the concept of integrating tones in an easier environment, simply because you have a leg up from your English knowledge. Also, pidgin languages are just cool to study in general because they’re a mélange of languages that result in interesting changes – it’s like the language equivalent of interbreeding. More people should be interested in learning Pidgin languages!

That’s it from me – If you know any good resources for learning Nigerian Pidgin English, let me know! I’ve been studying the language with a 1:1 tutor on italki, but in general, the formal and informal resources available to the language are pretty lacking. In fact, resources for learning pidgin language are pretty lacking. Someone get on that!

Also, as a side note: I keep using the term Nigerian Pidgin English specifically, because that’s what I’ve personally studied. I’ve also seen the term West African Pidgin English bandied about, but I don’t know if it’s all the same in the West Africa region except with differences in regional vocabulary. This is in no way meant to be a definitive post on the characteristics of Pidgin – I just wish to share the limited insights I’ve discovered from my experiences with the language. If you see anything that seems amiss or straight up faulty in this post, please let me know – I am mostly speaking from a place of ignorance and from a place of interest in a topic in which I am sorely uninformed on.

Update: I’ve just purchased this book and found it to be a helpful guide on Pidgin. The author states it to be specifically for Ghanaian Pidgin, but a lot of it also applies to Nigerian Pidgin as well:

Master the Pidgin

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