After a sudden burst of learning Chinese on an intensive course, I became caught up in work and barely practiced for a month. Inevitably, starting one-to-one lessons with the same tutor was an exercise in embarrassment as I’d nearly forgotten everything she’d taught me that wasn’t related to ordering in restaurants.
I guess everyone has a hook to learn a language, something they’re particularly interested in, and mine is definitely food and cooking. Coming back to the course after a month I could easily say “I’ve got a reservation at 8 o’clock, for 4 people”, “Could you wait five minutes” and “I’ll have this please…spicy but with no celery”. At the same time, I could barely remember how to ask someone about their job.
Of course, this may also give the impression that I spend too much time in restaurants and rarely want to chat about work.
The intensive course worked well as a rote learning process, but left me with more questions than answers. For better or worse, I tended to keep these to myself, rather than waste everyone else’s time with questions from my somewhat abstract thought processes. Taking one-to-one lessons gives complete freedom to stray wildly from the planned syllabus and schedule, letting me relate everything to other items that I know. In addition, a single teacher knows exactly how much I (should) already know and can progress accordingly – something that I didn’t feel was working when taking classes with five different tutors.
At the same time, using the proper syllabus I seem to have reached a tipping point of vocabulary, after which so many other words and phrases make sense. As I mentioned previously, low-level Chinese is somewhat akin to Pidgin English. Whereas we may have a name for something, Chinese frequently uses combinations of other words to imply that thing. For example, “web surfing” in Mandarin is “shàng wǎng” or “on net(work)”. If you also know that that qiú is ball it becomes a little clearer that wǎng qiú is “net ball”, which means tennis. I’m undoubtedly massively oversimplifying, but at my level it feels like quite a satisfying breakthrough.
Further to this, learning directions and landscape features suddenly clarifies so many place names that I’ve unwittingly used every day. North, south, east and west are Běi, nán, dōng, xi. Jīng is capital, so Beijing is northern capital; Nanjing is southern capital etc. – again, somewhat obvious once you know, but still pleasing. I’ve now assigned vague meanings to bridges and districts that are probably utterly wrong.
Combine this with learning the very simple grammar and sentence structure and we can now have long and rambling conversations about a wide variety of topics and activities. It’s got to the point that one of the hardest parts of learning Mandarin is coming up with plausible stories to use new vocabulary. I’ve alarmed the teacher a few times with made-up stories starting “I felt she needed to go to the hospital at 2am…”, “I bought a cat last week – it was a bargain so I got a spare” or “I am an only child, but I have a younger brother and an older sister. One is a Russian doctor and one is a Spanish nurse. Because they both dislike beef noodles, we don’t talk on the phone very often”.
We’ve also gone out for live practices, visiting shops, markets, bars and of course, restaurants. This involves pitting my language skills against the patience of some underpaid staff during their quieter times. This tends to go well enough, but I do wish they’d accept tips to compensate them for the pain I’m inflicting on their ears. It’s best to get out of Sanlitun for these practices, or else the staff frequently answers in decent English, and we have the awkward moment where I persevere in Mandarin and they look at my teacher quizzically, wondering if their English is equally unintelligible.
So far we’ve been learning exclusively in Pinyin. The teacher seems to be keen to move onto characters, which look tricky, so after a brief rush of success I’ll soon feel like an idiot again.
Apparently, I should get some character flashcards, so any recommendations would be appreciated.