October 22, 2013

The mysterious Chinese language

Chinese language - it IS definitely a challenge... 

Or "The mystery - the Chinese Language" 

I should be completely honest. Had studying Chinese been a side activity, I would have given up already. However it isn't. Chinese studies is my main activity, this is what I gave up working for. This is what I do. So I go on. I want to learn. I want to be able to speak Chinese. Chinese is a mysterious and fascinating language and Taiwan has an amazing story to be told, and yet my interest almost died. Why?
The doors to Chinese seemed locked
I felt stupid. After two weeks I still couldn't say anything. Nor could I make out the few words we got in school except for when someone other than some foreigners said them. Not very useful. It wasn't really better three weeks into my course. 

And then I realised one of the issues. There was nothing that I felt challenged me, nothing I could work with. Sure, in our "conversation class" we practised "Wo Shi" (我 是 - I am)(followed by country and by name), and we practised things like "Ta xing Wang" (他 姓 王 - "He is (his family name is)  Wang"), but not much more. And what we practised isn't enough to even go do some of the first step you need to do in a new country. A conversation that can't go beyond "My name is Ann-Katrin, what is your name" is kind of dead. Besides, one of the first things you need to do in a new country is to eat, it will take a while until you introduce yourself to someone "in real life" - most of the time the interactions start with people you won't ever meet again: The bus driver, the ticket office, the waiter in the restaurant, the tourist office. Rarely do you tell them your name. And yet we didn't get past that. I found it difficult - and yet I know this is a common place to start when you study languages, not just Chinese, and not just here.
Furthermore the first weeks, or even the first month, all we did in our normal class, our 101, was really  to practise sounds and BPMF, the "simplified" written language that is supposed to help you with pronunciation. It didn't really do it for me (I first mentioned BPMF here, a week into my studies). 

Don't misunderstand me, pronunciation IS tremendously important in Chinese, and BPMF is a great help in addition to pinyin, especially as the pinyin used is somewhat random, the same word may be written different depending on where you are, or on who wrote the sign, for that matter. Pinyin in Tawian is not standardised. More on that confusion in a later post - but for now, let me just say that the first month of language studies was completely wasted on my - I could not get my brain to even remember the sound on one try to another. Others seemed to do, but my brain refused to. 

Lost in Chinese - but now I start to see the light
Of course I compared myself to others, but that wasn't fair on anyone; An absolute beginner IS going to have a lot more to learn than the people who were born into Chinese speaking environment or at least know several other Asian languages, or the other westerners who either lived in the country for a long time or studied Chinese before but gave up on the tones and now started on beginner level - they are bound to be better than someone who didn't know a word of Chinese when arriving, at least in the beginning. I had to stop doing that, stop comparing and get over that hurdle. It's OK to not be familiar with tones when none of the languages depend on it or even use it for anything else than indicating a question. It's perfectly OK to not get it right - as long as you understand the importance, and I did. Some tones I could also hear the difference on - but hearing and saying yourself is of course different,  it is in any language you learn. 

And as I managed to order in restaurants, I managed to understand what I was getting, I picked up the fruits I wanted and I could ask for the same thing a week later as well as transcribe them into pinyin I know it wasn't that I couldn't learn, it rather indicated that there was something else that was missing, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. 

I got busy with other things, started a course in "food ethics" (in English, not Chinese). More work, one would think - but when I got a new challenge and something else to put energy into, something I am very passionate about something started to happen to my Chinese. It was still challenging, but little by little my brain got into Chinese mood. At least something stuck. 

And then about two weeks ago it suddenly changed dramatically - and when I say dramatically I really mean dramatically.

It's got nothing to do with me studying harder, I don't think I ever studied as hard as the first month, and yet I could just as well have skipped it all - nothing from the first month stuck in my head - and now, now all of a sudden Chinese is no longer a massive lump of sounds that I can't even begin to decipher, all of a sudden I am able to start breaking sentences into words and actually remember them, I can make some conversation. What happened two weeks ago was the following. We started writing characters! It turns out that this was my key. This suits me. All of a sudden classes got interesting. All of a sudden I can think an answer out, or a question for that matter, and actually write it down and later on use it. 

It still took (and takes) extra time to compute compared to French and German that I speak as well, and of course I can't compared it at all to English or Swedish that I am fully fluent in, but I  can all of a sudden I can see that this is actually doable, see the light in the tunnel. 

Being able to write and read Chinese I can reach out and read texts that are far more advanced, but about things that I am interested in - and that may seem harder but is actually easier, because it is fun and feels meaningful. I am a believer in things having a meaning - it's a far better learning environment. I can build my own vocabulary based on what I find interesting. And now it is even OK that the dialogues we use are talking about junk food and watching TV, things that don't interest me one bit (I love food, I don't have a use for hamburgers), because now I have the keys to my own learning. 

And you know what, all of a sudden the sounds start to make sense as well. To me, writing turns out to be the key. I wish I had realised it sooner and I could have focused my efforts differently, but the most important thing is I know it now - and now I recognise myself again. THIS is when learning a new language gets fun, interesting and not as hard as I feared. 

Before you know it, I'll hold proper conversations in Chinese. Little by little, step by step...  

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