How I Learned Chinese (part 2)
13 May 2007
So I’ve already explained how I arrived in China with a decent foundation in grammar and characters, but some problems with my pronunciation. So what happened next?
Well, first I should explain my initial attitude. Two years previously I had had a great experience studying Japanese in Osaka. I enjoyed the process of learning a new language in a foreign society so much that doing it all over again had become central to my post-graduation plan. So when I arrived in Hangzhou I was very eager to get out there and try out my Chinese.
I immediately ran into two major problems. Overcoming those two problems were key to my early progress in China.
Problem 1: Pronunciation
OK, so I already knew when I arrived that my pronunciation wasn’t great. I knew I got tones wrong sometimes. I knew I had been fudging Mandarin’s “x” and “q” consonants for two years. But I wasn’t prepared for the end result: people frequently just plain didn’t understand me. At all.
At first I tried to downplay it with “that guy was just not used to talking to foreigners” or “it must be my Beijing-centric pronunciation.” That attitude didn’t really help me. I got through the denial stage pretty quickly and ended up with a firm conviction: the problem is me. I then gathered all my resolve and launched into a relentless campaign of self-criticism. Whenever I was not understood, I made a mental note of which words it was I seemed to be having trouble with. When people repeated what I said, I paid especially close attention, because they would often be correcting my pronunciation rather than merely confirming. I was totally focused on every word* that came out of native speakers’ mouths.[*I have to make a note here: I initially lived in Hangzhou, a city in the southern province of Zhejiang. Southerners are notorious for their substandard pronunciation of the “sh,” “ch,” and “zh” consonants, but I knew this going in. It made listening comprehension very frustrating at first, but once I developed an ear for it, it became a huge strength. Having all that confusing input also made it absolutely imperative for me to look up in a dictionary every new word I picked up to confirm its correct pronunciation.]
With the help of a Chinese friend and a lot of concerted effort, I was able to finally figure out how to pronounce “x,” “q,” and “j” consonants after about a month of living in China. I also hired a qualified tutor (she had a masters in teaching Chinese) to help me, and under her tutelage I finally got the “yu” sound down. The “r” sound eluded me for longer, but with focused observation and a self-critical attitude, I conquered it as well.
Tones continued to be a major problem for a long time, but they got better with time. The important thing was that I was convinced from my early experiences in China that they were very important and couldn’t be ignored. I was constantly looking up words in my dictionary, frequently just to check the tones. Once you’ve looked up a word about twenty times to check the tones, it usually finally sticks. Certain tone pairs gave me problems for a while, but when I began really focusing on tone pairs, I was able to overcome them as well.
Problem 2: Practice
One great thing about modern China is that foreigners are still rare enough in most places that it’s not hard to find someone curious to talk to you. I soon learned, however, that this does not necessarily mean that they want to talk to me in Chinese. I was meeting people at every turn that just wanted to talk to me in English. This was very frustrating. On top of that, even if their spoken English was pretty bad, my Mandarin was worse. So if our goal was actual communication, speaking in English was much more effective.
This did not deter me. I saw it as a challenge. What I had observed was that the people that wanted to practice English the most were young people, typically university students. Since they were about my own age and had a lot of free time, they seemed like the ideal conversation partners. However, I eventually had to make a decision to reject them categorically because they were nearly all obsessed with improving their English and I was in a hurry to improve my Chinese. It may sound cold, but I didn’t leave my friends and family on the other side of the world to improve strangers’ English. Teaching English was my job and I was dedicated to it, but in my free time I absolutely had to be practicing Chinese. I decided that language exchanges made no sense; I was surrounded by millions of Chinese. I was sure I could find Chinese people that would be willing to do an old-fashioned “exchange” of ideas and information–entirely in Chinese. And if unwillingness to communicate with me in Chinese was the thorn in my side, then inability to communicate with me in English could be my salvation.
So who did I turn to? Well, I reasoned that with my Chinese as bad as it was, if the conversation was going to be all in Chinese I would have to find someone very patient. That’s not an easy trait to spot. But what I realized is that people can be motivated to be patient if they’re extremely bored. So I set my sights on people who (1) were not in an age range or social status that were likely to know (or want to know) English, and (2) had a job which left them stuck in one place with no one to talk to… bored people.
So my first Chinese friends were the guards at the apartment complex where I worked. Those guys were aged probably 30-45, and sat in a guardhouse next to the gate all day long. Their only daytime duties seemed to be opening the gate for the occasional car and handing out residents’ newspapers. There was always one of them in there, just reading a newspaper or sipping his tea and staring off into space. I noticed that they seemed very interested in me. So I took the plunge.
It was weird and awkward to go into the guardhouse that first time and just start talking in my broken Chinese. I could barely form a coherent sentence. But when I made it clear that I was just being friendly, the guard, in typical Chinese fashion, insisted that I sit down while he poured me some tea. That’s how it began.
I started spending about an hour in the guardhouse every evening. I would bring my notebook and my dictionary with me. It wasn’t because I was so studious that I wanted to write down everything I learned; those were essential tools for our communication! Sometimes I would be looking up three words in the guard’s simple five word sentence. Other times I would need them to write down a word so that I could guess at the meaning and look it up later. To be honest, it was kind of painful. I kept the chats to about an hour, because it was all that my poor brain could take. I left every session absolutely exhausted.
Chatting with the guards was a very humbling experience, but it was the kickstart my Chinese needed. I felt awkward every time I went in to initiate communication, but I was making progress, and those guys really wanted to talk to me. They loved my visits. Their faces would light up at the opportunity to communicate (however excruciating the process) with a real live foreigner.
I later moved from that apartment complex and didn’t get to see my guard friends as often, but I had gained important confirmation: I didn’t have to “buy” Chinese practice time with English. There were people that wanted to talk to me in Chinese–regardless of my level–if I would just seek them out.
From there my practice went in a lot of directions. I started frequently chatting with a young couple that ran a tiny burger joint down the street. They were only busy at mealtimes and had almost nothing to do the rest of the time. The more people I talked to, the more I improved, and the more I improved, the more different groups of people I felt comfortable talking to. I didn’t avoid the college kids forever; I found a way around the insistence on English. I found that by chatting online in Chinese I could focus on grammar and vocabulary without the pronunciation pressure. My goal was simple: see how long I could chat with someone without them catching on that I wasn’t Chinese.
My first year and a half I worked really hard at Chinese. I had no foreign friends, and my dictionary was my constant companion. At the end of that time, my Chinese was functional for the basics. I had made it to the “I’m speaking Chinese!” Stage.
Time travel 5 years to the future for How I Learned Chinese (part 3)!