24 September 2010
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. =)
Posted by V.a.n.e.s.s.a at 9/24/2010 01:36:00 PM