Reality Check

I had somewhat of a reality check the other day.

A friend from Germany and I had a five minute conversation completely in German.   It was pretty easy and the conversation flowed freely. The funny thing, however, is I have never really studied any German. Through the numerous cognates with English and my rudimentary knowledge of German syntax,  I could pretty much figure out what to say and understand what was being said.  Then it struck me…

After two plus months of studying Mandarin, my speech and comprehension is nowhere near this level.  My conversations in Mandarin consist of mostly two syllable, forced discombobulations and my listening skills are not much better.  What have I gotten myself into?!  Why on earth didn’t I chose to study German, or Dutch or Norwegian or anything remotely close to my native English?!

I am reading here on my package of berries:  rinser avant de utiliser.   It  is pretty obvious what this means, even without any knowledge of French. In Chinese, it would be something like : 冲洗前使用 (Chōngxǐ qián shǐyòng.). Totally impenetrable! [although I could probably figure out qián (before) and yong (use)]

Added to this frustration is the fact that I am just not finding enough time in my day to devote to studying Mandarin. If I am lucky, I get 15 Pimsleur minutes in the car to and from work and maybe another 20 minutes at night after I tuck my kids in bed.  It’s just not the amount of time I was hoping for.

In addition, the wonderfully simple shell surrounding Chinese is beginning to fade revealing the true, complex beast of Mandarin that lies beneath the exterior. For example, the word shi in Mandarin Chinese can have 29 different meanings depending on its tone and context?!  There are thousands of other words with multiple homophones like this as well. I have a new found respect for heavily inflected languages such as Hungarian and Russian.  While learning all of the different inflections and case endings is a pain, the advantage is that one can pretty much put the words of a sentence in any order and the meaning will not change.  Not so with Chinese. Changing the order of the words can completely change the meaning of the sentence.  The specific order of the words is key.   Then there is the little marker “le”了 .  At first I thought this was just a past tense marker.  Nope, sometimes it indicates the present, sometimes the future.  Sometimes the past is indicated with the construction shi … de .     Chinese was starting to drive me hopelessly mad.

About this time I read some posts on the excellent blog http://www.hackingchinese.com/.
One in particular reminded me that learning Chinese is not a race, but rather an ultra-marathon. There is no prize for rushing through a complex language such as Chinese as rapidly as possible.  I remembered to slow down.  If I only have 20 minutes a day to devote to Chinese, I need to make the most of it.  If I forget all the words I learned the day before, I just need to sit down and learn them again!  Not a race.   No prizes.   Enjoy the journey.   Be satisfied learning a tiny bit every day.  By simply slowing down, I began to feel much less overwhelmed.

Along those lines, I think I have finally found a study plan that I can stick to which also adheres to my time constraints.  I am about midway through the second level of Pimsleur Mandarin.  Pimsleur works great with my commute and helps a great deal with pronunciation and tone recognition. I also started using Assimil’s Chinese with ease.  This is perfect.  105 lessons divided into manageable chunks. 1 lesson per day taking around 20-30 minutes.  By the end of the course, I should have a comfortable command of around 1500 words and characters.  Definitely a solid start with Chinese should I choose to continue the pursuit.

Now, off to watch a Chinese cartoon about the Chinese Zodiac!

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