24 September 2010

Chinese Progress

I'm taking this night class. At first I was a little intimidated because I open the text book and it's all Chinese characters. No pinyin. So, before my first lesson, I start reading through it and thankfully, it comes with a cd, so I can just hear and understand it and write the sound over the character instead of taking the laborious procedure of looking up the character in the dictionary.

The teacher that did the placement test was concerned about putting me in this particular level because of my reading/writing skills. I convinced her that while my reading and writing is not on par with the Asian students, I would be able to handle the class.

So the first day of class happens. The teacher speaks exclusively in Chinese. At this point, I'm not sure if she speaks English. However, I understand everything she is saying and it doesn't hit me until I look around and just observe. I was overcome with this overwhelming astonishment that last year, this wouldn't be possible. All this time, I didn't think I was progressing fast enough, but somehow I am able to understand the whole class even when the teacher was speaking at a fast pace. I use to think my speaking skills were better than my listening skills, but I now know that it has been reversed.

Well, I soon realized that I was in league as far as speaking with the other students. There's only 11 of us now. Last semester there were 25. There are 2 Japanese college students, 1 Korean college student, 1 older Korean woman, 4 older Korean business men. 1 girl from Madagascar, and 1 girl from Italy. The girl from Madagascar and the girl from Italy both can't write the characters well, so at least I have two in the same boat as me. I have found that while a lot of them can speak Chinese, their pronunciation is really bad. I am definitely the #1 student with regards to pronunciation. This is something I've always put a lot of stress on. While some students may spend time with the vocabulary, I would practice the sounds over and over again in my beginning stages of learning Mandarin. When we were asked to write sentences on the chalkboard using the correct word order, I had to cringe while I wrote the characters at a pace 10 x slower then the Japanese students and even the Korean students. When I sat down, one of the Japanese guys tried to comfort me by saying that it isn't important and that my oral skills are very good.

I really don't feel like I need to be able to write the characters because I usually only write on the computer. As long as I can read them, I think that it is good enough because if I can type the pinyin, the google tool will just give me a list of characters to choose and as long as I can recognize them, I'm good to go. However, if I don't learn how to write these characters myself, I can't pass any of the HSK tests. These tests are important if I ever want to teach Mandarin in the future. (I'm not ignoring that possibility).

Not everyone goes to class. I'd say there's at least 3-4 that miss every time. I don't see why they would because this class isn't cheap, but I guess everyone has their responsibilities outside of class.

The teacher reviews a lot. It's pretty slow paced, but I suppose it's good for me to have that material shoved into my brain so many times. Repetition is really the key to learning a language.

Sometimes I freak myself out that I'm not improving enough. Sometimes when I see people in my branch that have been here 2-3 years and don't speak any Chinese, I realize you can't just live in China and hope it will just soak in. No, you have put tons of effort into it. But right now, I don't have enough chances to speak. I have the taxi driver, the grocery clerk, the restaurant staff. But how is this ever going to help me talk about current events and deeper issues? I need friends. I need friends that aren't trying to practice their English with me. haha.

I hate losing face. I hate when people laugh at me. Like yesterday, I was at the home depot of Chinese stores and trying to explain buying something like a caulk gun-like tool, and the clerk wouldn't even listen to me. I just had started my sentence. He just saw that I was a foreigner and started walking away. Usually, I would just find another clerk after experiencing the embarrassment but this time I walked right in front of him and demanded that he listen to me or I would tell his manager how he treated me, and then I definitely got his attention. I'm tired of the embarrassment and the constant humiliation. I'm tired when people have that little amused smirk on their face and look at their friends while I try my very best. I'm sure many of these people who walk away from me will never know how it feels because they may never learn a foreign language.

Ramsey coaches me a lot and gives me pep talks. He talks about learning Spanish and how he believes he could have been fluent in Spanish before his mission if he just let go of his pride. He was afraid of making mistakes and losing face. But he explained to me that this is only hurting your progress. He asked me why I didn't ask the taxi drivers about their day. I guess because most the time their dialect comes out. Many of them have a strong Shanghainese accent to their Mandarin which makes it harder to understand.

One time, I had a really good conversation with a taxi driver. We talked about the 1 child policy in China and about having kids in China in general and it was the first time I could really understand a taxi driver. He wasn't Shanghainese however. That really makes the difference. Shanghainese people click like little birds. Imagine a little bird calling for his mother to return to the nest. And they can't pronounce their "SH" and "ZH". Like "Shanghai" is "Sanghai." Depending how fast their speaking, it can get really tricky.

I have always loved learning languages. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time making up my own languages. I also liked making up characters likes Egyptian hieroglyphics. When I was a kid, I made it my goal to learn 5 languages in my lifetime. As of my adult life I wanted those to be: Russian, Chinese, Japanese, French, and Spanish. I have since kicked out Japanese. Something I had to do. And I'm tempted to kick out French and Spanish. My Russian is started to get pretty scary. It's been 5 years since I've taken courses. I spoke Russian the other day to a fellow expat, and Chinese words kept escaping into the conversation. Another humiliation. Learning a language takes over your whole life. I need a couple of lifetimes to learn these languages.

See, one of my problems is lack of patience. I get frustrated too easily when I feel I'm not progressing at the speed I'd like. I get upset at my memorizing skills. A week ago, I really had it, and spent hours researching way to improve my memory and came up with some pretty cool tricks. So far, I've seen some improvement so I'm going to concentrate on memorizing skills as much as I do a foreign language. It will especially help with learning the characters.

I tried teaching some of these memorizing skills to my class and I was blown away. They are amazing and it's so easy for them. I asked them how they did it and they explained that that was how the Chinese school system works. They spent their whole education memorizing facts, history, math. There isn't too much creativity emphasized in the Chinese school system. They are like little robots sometimes when I call on them. Without letting the language flow, they rehearse some learned dialogue that while correct, sounds very unnatural. But the point is, they can memorize anything, and they can usually memorize it fast.

So it would appear that the ability to memorize things in Chinese culture is really above Western culture. I was looking back at a test in the 1950s in America, and man oh man, the education system looks so different! You need to take a look! Would you see a test like that nowadays? I doubt it.

Don't get me wrong. I love the fact in the West, we are allowed to be free-thinkers and are rewarded for being unique, different, and creative, but sometimes, I feel like there wasn't enough emphasis on memorization skills. And by that, I don't mean emphasis on memorizing things, but emphasis on HOW TO memorize things.

For those of you who are reading this and have learned a foreign language, please leave a comment about your process and the struggle if any, and any tips you may have. Thanks. =)


  1. Great post, Ness! You're making such great progress. So glad you're getting a chance to take those classes. Hope you get some more opportunities to practice speaking.

    That's really what helped me learn French -- being forced to speak it. I studied in the mornings (and that was essential), but the constant speaking is what made me capable of holding a conversation (even if i'm far from fluent).

    Also, that 1950's test: wow! A ton of memorizing! There are definitely good and bad things about education focused on just memorizing. I would argue that it's mostly bad -- since repetition does not equal comprehension... HOWEVER, we could use some better memorization skills in addition to comprehension in the U.S. school system.

    Ok, this comment is too long. Love ya!

  2. What's wrong with a long comment? =P. I definitely understand your frustration with the lack of opportunity to speak the language. The same thing has happened to me in Vietnamese. In Vietnam, I gave up trying to speak with people after about a week. It is a constant up hill battle where you put in a tremendous effort and get little to no results (esp as a tourist). To further complicate things, the Vietnamese also have strong accents. When they speak formally, its intelligible, colloquial, not so much. Nonetheless, it is the best way to learn. Language a learning is 90% motivation and 10% circumstantial.

    It is always helpful to look back at your progress. I stopped by the Viet 101 class the other week and all the students envied my ability to talk. They are struggling with basic pronunciation and they rarely can speak a phrase and get it right the first time.

    Motivation in Viet is hard for me, especially when Trinh's parents want to practice their English with me. They insist on speaking English. They can say "how are you" and "very good". We haven't really had a conversation as they insist on speaking English. I stop by Vietnamese class once a week to help out and keep the language from going into total decay.

    You are doing a great job. Nothing can replace living abroad when speaking. I think it's great that we all of something in common with language. Check out my latest post!

  3. Congrats on the awesome progress! I'm super proud of you for all of the progress you've made.

    And Chinese is a really hard language to learn. I've spent like 20 hours trying to learn it, and nobody has understood any of my Chinese.

    So, here's my hint from someone who's already failed at trying to learn Chinese....I think if I were to learn Chinese, I'd have a huge part of my focus be on connecting the characters to the words. I know about 30 Chinese characters, and what they mean, but I only know how to pronounce one or two, unless you're counting with the correct tone, and then I know how to pronounce 0.

    And I'd spend a ton of time writing out the characters by hand, and thinking what they meant as I wrote them out by hand. From what I know about Chinese schools, then kids spend about a year (or what seams like a year) just practicing calligraphy. So maybe there's a mystical learning device embedded in the calligraphy. :)

    But, learning the characters first might just be my learning style.

    I have a friend who's amazing at learning vocabulary. She said she holds the new word in her head, and comes up with three different sentences for it, and then it sticks with her for good.

    I'm not like that though. I have a very high interest in learning languages, but a very low aptitude.

    I think that your introspection in this blog is a sign of a huge breakthrough you're about to have with Chinese. Again, awesome work with how good you are in Chinese already, and I'm super proud of you!

  4. Ness,

    You TOTALLY amaze me. I mean, YOU CAN SPEAK CHINESE! That is crazy cool! I totally get what you mean by the frustrating smirks and annoying rudeness. Being a missionary was the first time anyone treated me like I was dumb. I wanted to yell,"JUST GIVE ME A MINUTE!" I could speak once I warmed up, it just took a bit.

    It's funny how as we get better at a skill, we just raise our standards.

    When I was taking French at BYU, I thought, "If I could just hold a conversation with another American in French, that would be amazing!" Well, after living in the French House I could do that.

    Then I thought if I could just be as fluent as an RM, I'd never want anything again. Well, I went on a mission, and I was never the best missionary speaker, but certainly not the worst. Like you, I focused heavily on pronunciation, and did my best to expand vocabulary. But I still wasn't satisfied when I got home, and took a class, and read books.

    I still can't speak near as well as I'd like. And this pattern pretty much sums up every interest in my life: piano, flute, speech therapy, ballroom dancing, country dancing, gardening, cooking etc.. etc.. I always want to be better, and when I hit benchmarks, instead of being satisfied, I'm often more discouraged.I always compare myself with someone who has spent their whole life developing that skill, and the truth is, I don't like anyone of them enough to spend all the time necessary for mastery. I'm trying, now to just enjoy things at the level I'm at, and be grateful for them.

    So my advice is: Work hard, but have fun! And just remember how cool it is that you can understand and speak Chinese! I mean, that is TOTALLY AWESOME!!

  5. These are really great comments!

    @Jer: Studying in the morning is a great idea! That's definitely when my brain is awake. By mid day, I'm not thinking logically. When Shizhang's mother taught me, I learned so fast, because she didn't speak any English and I was forced to learn. I miss that so much. Then when I was classless, I tried learning on my own. Did I do it? Sometimes. I started a blog in Chinese but it lasted a few weeks. The problem is that I need motivation. Sometimes watching movies and doing other fun things tempt me a whole lot more. This is why I needed to take a structured class. As much as I love Chinese, I know I can't make it on my own!

    @Kev: One thing that I've been attempting to do is when my friends speak to me in English, I respond back in Chinese. This isn't always effective. But I'm thinking you should try this with Trinh's parents. I also don't think they will get offended. You're speaking their language for goodness sakes, I think they would be impressed and flattered.

    I'm so impressed that you can learn Vietnamese and have learned it so well. I still remember being with you at that restaurant and you ordering food and I was so freakin' impressed. I was so proud of my brother! We'll have to do that again when I visit you in the winter!

    @Joseph: I'm been using the book you gave me for my birthday. It's helping a lot. I guess I've been avoiding the inevitable for too long. Plus, for homework we have to study how to write 20 characters that the teacher chooses and be prepared to write them down when the teacher dictates them. Yikes. Keep up learning Chinese. It would be fun to chat sometime. =)

    @Val: I feel the same way! I feel like there are so many things I'm interested in but not one thing that I'm extremely good at. It's very frustrating. However, sometimes there are things that we overlook because they are not too outwardly obvious. I have found that I have a talent for responsibility and organization. My files I keep on all my students are very meticulous and I spend a lot of time organizing my grade book and my notes on each student. I even made a photo directory of them. I know exactly when things happen in the university. When there is a holiday, when grades are due, how to work the school's website to calculate their grades. I save and print their grades from last semester so that I have them when a student comes to me with a complaint. I do all of this for Ramsey while he blissfully shows up for class. Sometimes I get frustrated that I'm the responsible one but he is the far better teacher. So we all have our strengths and weaknesses.

    I would recommend making a list of things you are good at. Anything. You don't have to show anybody. Otherwise you may feel like you're bragging. It's amazing the things that you just thought everyone was good at, but really that may not be the case.

    Also, about your goals always changing. I totally feel that way! Before, I just wanted basic Chinese, and I keep getting hungry for more. I don't think there will ever be a point where I am satisfied with my abilities. I suppose that's part of my personality.