Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Learning Chinese (So Far)

It has been two and a half weeks since I first started studying Chinese and I feel that things have been going relatively well so far. China is certainly a tough language to learn and much more difficult than learning German, which is the only other foreign language I've learned and can compare it to. When I first started my course, I was the only person who was a complete beginner, so the first four days I was pretty lucky and had one-on-one class. With the one-on-one classes I was able to move as fast as I could learn the material, so things were going pretty well. Since those first four days, I have had three other students join the class and am no longer having the one-on-one classes. At first I wasn't happy to have classmates because I didn't have as much attention to my individual progress, but I realized it's been good to have people to practice with and joke about our attempts to practice Chinese in the city. Learning a new language almost forces you to adopt the mentality of a child and I definitely felt like one the first few days. When you're trying to learn how to pronounce new sounds you're bound to make a lot of mistakes and say some funny things as a result of those mistakes. My teachers will laugh sometimes if we say things really wrong or say something that is weird to them. It reminds me of being around a kid who is learning to talk when they pronounce or use words in a funny way and all the adults will have a good laugh about it. Another bonus about learning a language is that I get papers where I can trace Chinese characters in big squares, much like a kindergartner learning how to write letters. So this provides clear evidence I have hardly progressed as a person in the last 20 years. From my very short introduction to Chinese so far, I can basically see four levels of difficulty to learning the language. As a former consultant, I decided it was necessary to use a bulleted list, although I resisted the temptation to create sub-bullets.
  • Pronunciation: Chinese can be written in what is called "pinyin" which is basically Chinese written in western style letters. Some of the letters make the same sounds as in English, but others are quite different. For example, 'x' makes more of a 'sh' sound. Also, when some letters are combined, the pronunciation changes slightly. To be fair, though, Chinese pronunciation is very consistent and there are fewer combinations of letters than in English. In English, for example, "read" can be pronounced different ways depending on the context and there is basically an infinite limit to the way letters can be combined.
  • Tones: Imagine mastering the way letters are pronounced and thinking you are finally starting to understand a language. Then imagine being told that there are 4 different tones of pronunciation for each letter combination or word and that each of the tones indicates a different meaning for the word. I'm not going to write about what each tone is, just know that for a western language speaker they are difficult to speak, difficult to discern between when listening, and difficult to understand how such a language system ever evolved.
  • Chinese Characters: As far as I can estimate, the "pinyin" style of writing was only created to make the Chinese language more accessible to foreigners, as well as for simplicity when using technology such as keyboards or cell phones. At first I thought I would bypass learning Chinese characters since it seemed like too difficult of a task and just learn the pinyin, but after being in China for a couple weeks, I realized that "pinyin" is rarely used in Chinese writing. Also, the characters seem pretty invaluable if you plan on spending much time traveling around China. China has multiple dialects throughout the country and in oral communication, some Chinese people can't even understand the other dialects within the country, so what hope is there for an ignorant American such as myself? Well, the hope lies in the characters as they are the one thing that is uniform across all dialects. In fact, on normal Chinese TV, there are often subtitles with the characters so all people across the country can understand what is being said. So with that in mind, I decided to put a lot of effort in at least being able to read characters. Writing characters, however, is another story at this point.
  • Grammar: After mastering pronunciation, tones, and characters, the final frontier is grammar. As with all languages, there is no one-to-one translation between sentences and learning all the differences is a lifelong process. Right now, I'm happy to be able to say my name and where I'm from.
This ended up being longer than I had hoped, but I think it provides a good overview of what I'm spending most my days doing right now. I'm pretty happy with my progress and have been able to communicate with people a little bit around the city. It's funny, though, because sometimes when I'm trying to think of what to say in Chinese, my brain will start thinking in German, like it's kicking into foreign language mode, but was shifted into the wrong gear. Hopefully this problem doesn't last too long. I realize at this point that learning Chinese to the point of fluency would take a lot more time than I probably will have in China, but if I can have a basic level of proficiency, I will be pretty happy. In the meantime, I'm going to get back to talking to myself in my apartment to practice Chinese tones and pronunciation and making my neighbors think that I'm either stupid or crazy, or maybe both.


Phil Dawsey said...

Booo. No Pictures. Haha, well i hope you improve your german there as well, as you should be visiting die Schweiz. I'll work on my chinese counting too - get those tones right.

Ming said...

Hi Wes, found ur blog thru my search because I'm considering studying chinese in china myself. I'm interested to know what pointed you towards Hangzhou? Most ppl recommend me beijing or taipei. Wd be lovely if you respond here, or my mail thx!

Alice said...

Yay! go wes! Soon you'll be more fluent than me, cause I never get a chance to use my chinese anymore. Are you learning the simplified characters or the traditional ones?

Wes said...

Hey Alice - I'm learning the simplified characters. It's still really hard and my teachers seem to think it reasonable for me to learn 100 new characters a week, which is slightly beyond my capacity right now.

Edward said...

This all sounds so sweet man. I'm late getting caught up but the blog has been solid so far and your posts are definitely inspiration for change as Gcourt mentioned a couple of posts ago.