Monday, June 6, 2011

Why hasn't your Chinese improved?

After being in Taiwan for one year, we felt our Chinese had improved a lot. Jonathan's parent's were here visiting for two weeks, and judging by our ability to make hotel reservations, order food, and have small conversations with people we met during our vacation we were proud about how far we'd come.

I can't remember clearly at this point how good my Chinese actually was, but it probably wasn't nearly as good as I had thought. But that's the thing with Chinese. After a year's dedicated hard work, and 240 hours in the classroom you really feel as if you've come so far, but the sad reality is you are only 1/8th of the way there.

The struggle with learning Chinese is how many components there are to the language. There are characters instead of an alphabet and words. There are five tones. There is a spoken language and a written language, which sometimes can be used interchangeably. The grammar, luckily, is very basic.

Now, here is something I could not grasp for a long time: there are only 80 sounds in the entire language. And that is where the tones come in, helping to distinguish the word. Let's take the sound "shi" for example. Now, when I type in the sound "shi" I get so many options I can't even count them all. They are all represented by a different character: 是, 時, and 十 all sound like "shi" with only the tones distinguishing their meaning. But, this isn't a good example, because
"時" and "十" actually have the same tone (second tone) so really you have pay attention to the context of whatever conversation you are having to know which one they are saying.

Want to learn Chinese now?

I remember I used to make this chart of the the similar sounding words. Like all the shi's or all the xiang's but there came a point where there were just so many, and I realized that it would be impossible for me to maintain the chart in any useful way. Memorization was the only option.

I won't continue trying to explain how complicated this language is, because it's complicated to explain how complicated it is. Like that?

So back to my progress. I thought I was doing great, making vast improvements. And then we had dinner with aunt May's parents. It's hard to talk to some older people because, here in southern Taiwan, for most of them Taiwanese is their primary language. Of course they can speak and write Chinese too, but their accent is heavily influenced by Taiwanese language, and almost unintelligible to the untrained ear. So at dinner, Jonathan and I struggled to find one or two words, amongst the jibberish, that even resembled what we knew to be Chinese. And at the end of the night, after much failure and almost every sentence needing translation assistance from Paul and May, A-gong (May's father) said, "but you've been studying for a year, why haven't you improved?"

A-gong and I, finally understanding each other

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