We’ve been calling Emmy xiao bao bei—little treasure, little darling—since she was born, so this song makes me endlessly happy. But I also like it because it’s maybe the sweetest that Mandarin has ever sounded in my ear.
I was talking to someone recently who shared a conversation she’d just had in which the woman had imitated how ridiculous and abrasive English had sounded to her when she first came to the United States. The sound was wonderfully awful. I’ve definitely heard people speaking a language my ears can make nothing of and thought, It is not possible that these people aren’t just repeating two words. This woman’s impression was just as unflattering and reductive. And a good reminder.
It would be easy to here suggest that with patience and willingness we come to hear each other better, literally and figuratively, which is true. But there are still other factors contributing to the task. A linguist friend acknowledged that our reactions to languages aren’t just about familiarity, but that things like an even pattern of vowels and consonants can make a language (like Japanese) sound pleasing to more people than a language with more stacked-together consonants.
Still, surely in any language, a great voice does a lot of the heavy lifting.