Learning Chinese


Thursday, 20 November, 2014

Taipei, Taiwan

So, I have started taking Chinese lessons, and frankly, have become quite motivated too – this entire entry was written in Mandarin, be thankful to trusty old Google translate for allowing you to read it.

More to the point, I am studying through choice! Sure, I chose to do A-levels and what not, but that was very different – back then I pursued an education over slinging crack on the corner to support a baby momma (my college years coincided with 50 Cent’s rise in the music industry – I was heavily influenced by his story).

At school I had literally no interest in learning another language – I was made to study German, but other than being able to inform people of when my birthday is and that ‘I have a dog’ (which has never been true – therefore, not only completely pointless but also a lie), I maintained nothing.

It’s only as you get older that you realise learning other languages is quite beneficial – nobody wants to be that guy on holiday shouting very slowly and loudly in English at a waiter, as if they are the one in the wrong for wanting to communicate in their native tongue.

“Two (peace-sign finger gesture). Beers (drinking out of a glass gesture). Please (hands together, praying to God gesture).”

However, deciding to have a proper crack at learning a language for the first time, makes you realise how difficult the process actually is – particular when you choose to start with Mandarin.

The initial idea was to go straight from ‘English’ to ‘中国’. However, when I saw ‘中国’, my brain just told me we’d be having none of it. I managed two sentences over a three year period in German, and they mostly use the same letters we do – how could I cope with, what to me looks like, a carefully constructed maze.

I then discovered the magic of ‘pinyin’ – which is basically Chinese written via English letters. So, I would now only need to study half of the language. To be fair, I wasn’t looking to enroll into an art class – I just wanted to figure out how to tell a taxi driver where my house is when I’m blind drunk.

In short, I’ve signed up to learn how to speak and listen to the language – but, will not be studying how to read and write.

This certainly does not mean that I have things easy though – just slightly easier. Sure, I’m not drawing squares with five carefully crafted straight lines going through them, but I do need to learn the different tones.

Ah man, the different tones.

We’ll do a drill, where I literally just have to repeat what she says, and I still mess it up – because if the tone is not exactly as she says it, I’ll be saying a completely different word. I can’t really help my Yorkshire accent though, Ms.

The other day she said, “Mom.” And apparently I responded, “Horse.”- How the frigging hell does that end up happening then? I’m starting to believe that she’s just taking my money and completely mugging me off for a laugh.

It’s all mad – my teacher went on to tell me that the exact translation of ‘mother scolds the horse’ is ‘ma ma ma ma’ – get your head around that. It sounds like a baby trying to say their first words. Sadly, when I attempt the exact same sentence, it comes out as ‘mother horse scolds mother’ – which I think means that I am suggesting that she self-harms when the ponies are at school.

I could give you thirty examples of times that she said one thing and I’ve replied with another – but, I’ll leave it at just one more. She said, “Beautiful”, and I apparently responded with, “Plum.”

So, if you ever want to become a smooth talking ladies’ man in Taiwan, be very careful with those tones. You could screw up the delivery when telling a girl she has a beautiful figure and end up with slap. After all, no girl wants to hear they have the body shape of a plum.

I’m just so glad that I have chosen to learn in a one-on-one format. I could have looked like a right wally if she started going around the classroom for six people to reply with ‘beautiful’ using perfect diction; and then I step up giving her fruit-bowl filler.

It’s not just straight repetition for two hours though, my ego couldn’t take that.

She also lets me play the ‘memory game’ every now and again, I guess to break things up. However, I was very disappointed to discover that the title of the activity is very misleading – there is nothing ‘game’ about it. No dice, no ball, no rewards – she just says a word or phrase and I tell her what it is in English. Crappiest game ever!

Not only is the memory game boring, but it also tells tales – nothing reveals to the boss lady that I’ve had a week of beer and sitcoms like that game does.

The activity also made me realise that there is a downside to one-on-one classes – it is impossible to cheat, or even just lean back on your chair at the back of the room and let the enthusiastic teacher’s pet handle all the questions. You’re in the front-line every week.

It’s pretty good going back to the position of student though, because I can now see things through my students eyes (oh yeah, I have a new job). I may even bring the ‘memory game’ into my classrooms just to see exactly which of my kids are at home memorising, and which of them are having beer and sitcom weeks.

The downside about learning Mandarin is that everybody at my work knows that I am studying the language and wants me to demonstrate my progress for them.

They will then ask me a question entirely in Chinese, expecting me to reply with great confidence – only I won’t have the slightest clue what they actually said. Therefore, I’m just left to confess that I’ve not actually got beyond mum / horse and beautiful / plum level. They follow this by walking away disappointed.

I am improving, just very slowly. However, I’m still mixing up words daily. I tried to order a coffee the other day, but unfortunately, left the shop thirsty and with a dog collar. On the upside, at least I now have something I can use to keep the lie alive when all my German friends come over to visit.

The next day I tried to order a hot coffee and walked out of the shop with a cold coffee – so, each day I improve ever so slightly. I’m going to keep studying until I can flawlessly order a coffee, you’ve got to dream big or there is just no point.

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