Apr 10, 2011

On Learning Chinese.

Last night during my almost-nightly call with my mom (yes, I'm that lucky), my mom blurted out during one of my 5 minute speeches about something random, "What about school? You never talk about school!"

"What is there to say? I go to school. It's the same everyday. I'm learning Chi.nese," I said.

But I know she's right. The truth is that I talk about school all the time. To my friends who are in the same situation. We compare teachers, rip apart our activities, complain about boredom, and help each other through grammar lessons.

Alright, mom, I'll tell you about school.

I picked up a decent working vocabulary in my first two years in Chi.na just by hanging in the bars, talking to every random person on the street, at the hairdresser, in the market, etc. I wasn't afraid to sound like an idiot and in many occasions had to speak up in order to survive/make it through another situation. (i.e. lost in the city, at the train station, etc). I was completely illiterate for 2 years and thus relied on spoken phrases to get by. Instead of looking at the menu, I would ask, "what veggies do you have?" and so on...

I learned grammar and phrases by listening and copying people. One time at the milk tea stand, the person in front of me pointed then said, "di 2 ge." Then the worker gave them the second tea on the list. I learned by this that if I put, "di.....ge" around a number, I will get that number thing. I had no idea what Di and Ge meant, but I knew that saying that would get me the tea I wanted. I learned like this.

I learned how to joke with taxi drivers and if I didn't understand what they were saying, I would ask them to teach me. I would go on dinner dates with Chin.ese men from the bar just to see how long we could hold a conversation for. I got a lot of free dinners and new vocab words from these random people. (some of who have become my friends to this day). I gave my phone number to everyone (something that haunts me) and would go anywhere with anyone if it meant I could practice Chin.ese. (I do not want my daughter to do this one day, but turned out ok for me. ha).

Learning Chinese was about discovery, fun, trial and error, and relationships. I knew how to say words like, "I have diarrhea," and "hot guy," before I knew how to say, "i'm hungry," and "left and right."

Then I entered school. As someone who can hold a conversation with anyone, but couldn't even read or write my Chin.ese name. This was a problem. I was back to square 1.5.

And so I toil on.

Now after 6 months of studying and over 3 grammar books completed, I can read advertisements, headlines of newspapers, bus stop schedules, and can recognize over 1000 characters. I sit on the bus and stare out the window at the advertisements along the way. The world is opening up to me. I can read basic things on menus, street names are hard because they are often random vocabulary words we don't learn - "flowering bee lane" is not going to be recognizable, but I know the streets around where I live, so I can go to a bus stop and look for a street near me and make it home.

The other day I was walking down the street and saw an advertisement for medicine, "Don't Worry," I read outloud. YAYY! The people near me stared at me thinking I was crazy, but I didn't care, I read the sign! A sign I had seen a million times as just random squiggles, I now know says, "Don't worry." The progress that I am experiencing is huge.

But it is also sometimes devastating.

It's a case of the more you learn, the more you know you don't know. While my grammar structures are becoming better and my reading is exploding, my writing is going nowhere.

I fail most of my daily dictations.

The problem is, I don't care. And I let my teachers know it.

I have the mindset that writing is not important. I can read the characters on the computer and in books, why would I need to physically write them? It stinks because when the teacher says the sentences outloud for us to write, I know that I could read those words, I just have no idea how to make that character appear on the paper. This is something many students and even Chi.nese people struggle with because people use computers more than physically writing things down.

I just know that my time is short, I only have 2 more months in Chin.ese classes before I begin my PhD program next year. I plan to spend the summer here in Chi.na studying rather than returning to the states like I have the past two years. The people in my class have been studying for 2 years or more and I've been here only 6 months...it's a race to the HSK, the Chine.se test for foreigners.

I have decided to take the HSK 2x even though it is a bit pricey. I will be taking it in Hangzhou on May 22 and again in Shanghai in June.

The Chine.se are avid test takers. They test like crazy, take tests to get jobs, get into highschool, etc. It's very much a "learn how to take the test...not really the information," kind of a situation. I am at the stage of studying where I have an HSK study book and I am just translating the directions. It's stressful because I can't even read the directions of the test.

I need to score a 4 (out of 8 total levels) on the intermediate test. I have already passed a practice level 3 test last January. (You take the level test that you need and either pass or fail that level).

I'm anxious for this year to be over. Learning Chin.ese has been all I wanted and I'm ultimately in this program not for the PhD, but because it is a way to become fluent in a language I love (for free). But I don't like the way that I am studying - 20 hours a week, every day the same. I'm ready for the PhD to start, to be in classes with all Chin.ese students and be learning real information.

Being in a classroom with a bunch of other foreigners while Chi.nese people go about their lives outside our walls is a little counter-productive to me. We need to be out there with the Chin.ese people. But I know that in order to have the grammer and background, I need to be in a classroom with books and homework and lessons. It's just so boring, repetitive, and void of creativity.

My weekly schedule is made up of 4 different classes with 4 different teachers, the same students in every class. I have reading, listening, speaking, and grammer - grammar being our daily class and "head teacher." We do a grammar chapter every 2.5 days. We read dialogues, do grammar excercises, correct sentences, give speeches, and write a million characters over and over and over and over. Already this semester I've given 3 speeches (the meaning of Easter, American "breakfast" culture, and Chinese slang).

I don't study as much as I should outside of the classroom because I have many other responsibilities. My life experience here is very full - orphans, church, friendships, work, tutoring. School is just one part of my life in Chi.na. It is an important part, but not the most important...for now...not until the end of 2012 when I begin my dissertation. Then it's peddle to the metal, PhD or bust time. But I'm not there yet, one semester at a time.

My general impression is that I would never pay for this, but that it is necessary for me to get to the good stuff - the PhD classes. I believe that if a person wants to come to Chi.na to learn Chi.nese they should spend maybe just a semester in classes (to get some reading and writing basics), then get a job and hire a tutor. Real life is such a better teacher than outdated text books.

So that's my school experience in a (long) nutshell.

Does that answer your question, mom? :) mwah.

walk slow. xoxo.


an ABC said...

Hi Jessica, this is Amy (from MAIS-C4!), I just wanted to say 加油 to learning Chinese!

agapelife said...

thanks! i too have been dying to hear about school. Probably because I'm in school and it consumes nearly my whole life!

what a wonderful opportunity you have.
missing you!

Mom said...

Thanks for the update! I am so happy to hear details about your learning. I will call you tomorrow!