Having been born and educated in England, most schools taught us French or German, possibly Spanish as our second language. I never even considered trying to learn Chinese. China was so far away, and at the age of 11 I didn’t even dream of going and working in China.
13 years later, and living in China, I am now trying to learn Mandarin, from scratch.
The optimum age for acquiring a new language is when you are younger, when your mind is open and still able to be shaped. The younger the better, though I did try to delude myself that being immersed in the culture, and surrounded by the language, it would come easily. I was soon proven wrong.
First day in China, I only knew how to say ni hao, and probably not with the correct intonation. I was asked why I didn’t say thank you, or at least try to be polite. Simple truth, I didn’t know. I was under prepared. I vowed to throw myself into learning the basics of the language.
Over the days I was told xie xie is thank you, and ting bu dong means I don’t understand. I must have said both of those phrases a million times each day, to be greeted with mock laughter, and much repetition of ting bu dong. Maybe I wasn’t saying it correctly.
The hardest part about learning Chinese is the different accents and dialects. Every country has a different accent or expressionisms depending on the county or even state. This is the same with China, though there are plenty more towns, and villages, each with their own unique language.
Furthermore, the four different tones and ways of pronouncing the vowels make it even more interesting. The first tone I feel like I am singing (or trying to sing), the second tone (the rising tone) I feel like I am trying to ask a question, then third, I repeat the way in which we say water, down then slightly rising, then finally the fourth tone. I feel like I am angry, shouting, sharp. Saying a sentence where the tones are constantly changing, I feel is a vocal challenge, you are thinking whether to sing, question, water, or be mean, and the facial expressions I pulled whilst trying to master each sentence tells a story. Plus the accompanying hand movements to indicate the tone is just plain hilarious. It doesn’t help anyone understand you better, but it does make them laugh at you.
I attended Chinese lessons provided by the school with some other new teachers, though even then I was out of my depth, and couldn’t keep up. I then approached a Teaching Assistant and asked her to give me private lessons. The best decision I ever made. I had an hour lesson each week, and it was at my pace, and focused on me, my pronunciation. The lessons were aimed at what I might reasonably need to know, such as taking a taxi, ordering food, numbers, my address and so forth.
These lessons were conducted at my apartment, so I felt comfortable. I was told to always open my mouth. As an English person I tend to keep my mouth pretty closed when speaking, but here you need to really open your mouth to say the vowels, and get the correct intonation. Plus looking at yourself in the mirror helps. You can see what a word looks like, as well as hearing what it sounds like.
I would be so confident after each lesson, that I had retained at least some information and keen to test out my newly acquired, rudimentary skills. So I did.
In one of my lessons I was teaching children different types of jobs, such as baker, carpenter, toy maker, and one of the roles was teacher. I thought great – I know this in Chinese, I can tell them in English and Chinese. So I did. Then the children burst out laughing. Not the reaction I had hoped for. I said it again, more laughter, but accompanied with pointing this time. I decided I had better ask them what was so funny. Instead of telling the children that I was a teacher, I was telling them that I was a snake. That was the first of many communication errors.
Others include numerous scenarios in a taxi, where I would ask to be taken home from a train station, or a night out, and they have no idea what I am saying. Or, in some circumstances dropping me off on the opposite side of where I wanted to be.
Three of us had gone to the Bird and Flower Market, and decided to get a taxi back. We dropped a friend home, and my flatmate helped him in with his purchases, whilst I stayed in the taxi. Big mistake. After a minute or two the taxi driver started turning around, and going to drive off. As soon as I realised what he intended to do, I started asking him to stop, and wait. He didn’t understand. I raised my voice a bit, and gestured using my hands to wait. I thought the hand straight out in front, palm outwards was a universal traffic signal to stop. I was wrong. He got to the main road, until I frantically rang my housemate, and asked her what stop was in Chinese. I said it, no comprehension, so passed the phone to him. He then stopped, and I indicated to go back. Relief as he turned the taxi around. I have no idea where he would have gone, as I didn’t know the name of my street, and he obviously couldn’t understand my Chinese. However, it did prompt me to learn stop (ting) pretty quickly.
Ordering coffee isn’t that easy either. I once asked for a hot chocolate, and was given a cold latte. I asked for a cold latte, and was given a hot cappuccino. It is a lottery, unless the place has it written in English underneath and you can point, or else, TPR is understood, it is a mystery as to what you may end up with.
Learning Chinese isn’t easy, it’s a journey. You have to be prepared to pull funny faces, be misunderstood and laughed at, to get lost, to really apply yourself to learning it, and then learn from your mistakes. I can now clearly say teacher, and snake. I can say stop, and give directions, I can order my drink. I learnt from every experience and improved. Though when my neighbour stops me on the stairwell and starts saying something to me, I still don’t understand, and politely say so. I am slowly learning. I doubt I will ever master the language, but I will keep learning and adding grammar and vocabulary to my expanding repertoire, and enjoy each misunderstanding along the way.