Having been in China for over a year now, I’m painfully aware that I’m still terrible at Chinese.
At school, I learnt French and German, and can still hold a conversation. Working in Tokyo I learnt enough Japanese to get by in the first month. Spending two months in Central Asia, mostly surrounded by sheep and goats rather than humans, I learnt to read rudimentary Russian. Volunteering in Costa Rica I lived alone with a village family and learnt Spanish from nothing to quite a reasonable level in 8 weeks. I’m apparently not awful at learning languages, and Costa Rica was only two years ago, so I’m not going to use getting older as an excuse.
I thought part of the problem might be Chinese being so totally alien. With a good grounding in the structure of French, German and Spanish followed easily. Being able to read the letters and watching TV with subtitles was an efficient and enjoyable way of increasing vocabulary. For some reason, Russian just clicked and came easily. Chinese doesn’t seem to follow any of these rules, but then neither does Japanese and I was able to pick up a little of that language quite quickly.
Additionally, if someone is happy or angry in a language it’s generally easy to pick up from the tone of voice. In Chinese, two old friends talking about a kitten can sound as though they’re venting years of pent up hatred at each other. Of course, they might be angry, I couldn’t tell, but such conversations more often end in grins than fisticuffs. Japanese in a business environment is spoken in a far calmer fashion, which may have aided my comprehension.
Every time I leave the building our security guard says something in greeting, and I’m really just nodding and smiling without having a clue.
I admit I’ve not taken any Chinese lessons beyond Rosetta Stone, which I just didn’t enjoy. I understand the Rosetta Stone concept, and that it takes time, but it’s frustrating. After 3 months I was able to say “The boy is holding the yellow ball”, “The horse is near and the house is far” and “The woman goes running in the morning”, but nothing remotely useful like “One of those please”, “Where is the toilet” or “I’m not paying that much!”. In addition, the whole pinyin writing section feels pointless as Chinese people write in Chinese characters (unsurprisingly!), and the speech recognition element oftentimes struggles with native Chinese speakers, let alone my mangled accent.
Rosetta Stone and an audiobook did teach me the tones well enough to read pinyin accurately so I reverted to studying a phrase book and dictionaries. By that method, I’ve learnt enough Chinese sentences to cope with day-to-day life, like shopping and restaurants, but am aware that it’s just parrot fashion really. Anything more complicated is a result of me figuring out questions in pinyin using dictionaries and Google Translate.
This works, but I can only occasionally understand the responses, as long as they’re in context and accompanied by a bit of hand waving.
This gets me by but I’ve reached a plateau that’s a long way from understanding a conversation and I’m sure that my friend’s toddler will soon be correcting me.
Anyway, the point is that I’m keen to improve my spoken Chinese and make a start on reading, so it’s time to go back to basics. I’m willing to try anything, so would be interested to know what anyone else’s most effective method of learning was:
- a classroom with part/full-time lessons? I’ve found a couple of schools that would provide a good kick-start
- community language groups – a good way to meet people, but it is effective?
- complete immersion with a family, maybe well away from all the English in larger towns?
- the ‘learning workshops’ where you do things like go shopping as a group and presumably annoy underpaid shop employees?
- podcasts, but which one?
- anything else I’ve not heard about?
- all of the above?
Alternatively, should I just man-up, go back to Rosetta Stone and get on with it? Then perhaps I can figure out why the security guard is always so happy, and whether he’s laughing at or with me…
I’d very much welcome any language learning ideas or recommendations in the comments below.