I’ve been in China three and a half months now and my language ability, compared to its non-existence when I first arrived, has stunned me. I have been receiving four hours of private Chinese tutoring since arriving (with a month off for technical difficulties and tutor changes), along with living with the language daily.
In terms of language learning, my situation is far more ideal than most foreigners. Foreigners who teach at high schools or international schools often do not hear any Chinese all day. I have friends who have been here over a year whose Chinese is worse than mine–and they also have no interest in learning.
I, as the only foreigner at my branch of the school, am surrounded by Chinese constantly, from the Chinese teachers and the students. Its amazing what you can pick up by just listening. I’ve learned that learning Chinese is all about context and listening. If you know the situation, you know what words to look for, and can use the words you know as clues to what the person is probably saying. Because of this, my understanding of Chinese is far beyond my speaking ability, which is almost zero. These days I can take taxis with ease, hold simple conversations with taxi drivers, and direct them if they don’t know quite where they’re going. I feel a rush of euphoria every time I have successful conversation with a Chinese person. It reminds me how much I love learning languages, and that one of my main goals while living here should be to learn the language.
Every day I feel as if I’m emerging from a blanket of fog. Where before, I had no idea what any of my kids were saying, now I can understand simple requests or phrases, such as “Laoshi kan!” (老师看 “teacher, look!”) or “laoshi lai le!” (老师来了 “teacher’s here!”). I understand when kids are asking if they can go to the bathroom, though I could not reproduce the phrase if I was asked. I just know enough to say “qu ba” (去把 “you can go”).
If feels as if every day I realize something new–what the loud speaker on the bus has been saying all along, what the heck taxi drivers mean when they ask “fulinwanjia zai licun qu zheng fu?,” and words and phrases my coworkers speak around me. Everything I’m learning in my lessons is constantly reaffirmed in daily language around me, making it twenty times easier to remember. I also have the advantage of enjoying learning a new language, and already having German, my second language, under my belt. As I have been telling people, I’m on my way to “trilinguality.”
Yesterday, my Chinese teacher asked me in Chinese what the German word for hello was while I was thinking in English. My head almost exploded trying to process three languages at once, and it took me at least two minutes to remember “Guten Tag.”
I still have a long way to go, but I make an effort to try to talk to friendly taxi drivers and neighbors in the elevator. Sometimes we understand each other, sometimes we don’t. You just have to put aside your fear and go for it. China’s a huge country with the largest population in the world. Chances are you will never see that person again.
In other news, I was asked by some guys at my church to join their band, The Followers. We play gigs in restaurants and coffee shops around Qingdao. I’ve joined them as backup vocals and occasional lead vocals for the last two gigs. Its pretty informal, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it.