Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Language School

The main focus of our time in China right now is language and culture learning. Every morning, we get up and ride our bikes down Heping Blvd (Peace Blvd) to Langston. Langston is a private language school-their main focus is English but they have a fledgling Chinese program.
I(Sandy) am in the beginner's class. It's basically Ground Zero for Chinese learners. Even though I have been around Chinese speakers for years, I've learned almost nothing. It's helpful to have heard Chinese over the years though.
Our textbook is called Chinese Made Easier. It's really excellent. Elisabeth has a textbook called Chinese Made Easy, a name which I consider an absolute lie or at the least, oxymoronic.
We spent the first two weeks of class working on tones and Chinese phonetics. I am so thankful to have a background in linguistics and language learning as this really helps me understand language and the point of the lesson. But no back ground in the world can help me reproduce the four tones of Mandarin Chinese. I can hear them in my head (sometimes) but they don't always come out of my mouth.
If you do not have the right tone in Chinese, you do not have the right word. For example "Qingwen" in the 4th tone means "Excuse me." In a different tone, it means "Kiss me." So it is possible that I have said to taxi drivers "Kiss me, please pull over here."
We are now in lesson 5 of the conversations and so far have learned classroom supplies, fruits, vegetables and verbs give, have , want buy and sell. We are working on numbers, which makes me feel about five years old! It just takes study every day-We are in language study about 25 hours a week. This involves classroom time, working with a language helper an additional three hours a week and study.
Last week, we took a visitor to the Old Forbidden City. A sweet little girl came up to me and said in Chinese "Are you a foreigner?" (Ni shi Waiguoren?) "Yes. I answered." "I am American. Where are you from? " "China" she answered ( a little surprised). I was pretty proud of myself for this little exchange until later when I realized that I had used the wrong pronoun in the whole conversation.
Paul is in a much higher level class. For years, he has been told that he has pronunciation issues and now the chickens have come home to roost! His teacher's and language helper are really correcting him. It's good in some ways but very discouraging in others. He is very diligent in study and working very hard in and out of class.

Many people in Shenyang speak a rather strong dialect, which can be hard for us to understand. These are often the people that we speak to- the taxi drivers and people who work in the markets.
Language learning is critical to our life in China. While we have worked with English Language learners for many years, this experience of living in another country while learning the language has given us a whole new level of empathy. It's just so exhausting to figure things out when you are at a lower level of language. In order to get meet, you have to talk to the butcher. In order to get fruit or vegetables, you have to talk to the fruit and vegetable people. In order to get anywhere, you have to talk to the taxi driver! It's great bonding with our new culture and we have plenty of people to help us, but it still can be a challenge.

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