Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wo ting bu dong nide hua OR Nide Putonghua hen hao?

So which is it?  My neighbor (whom I like and talk to on a regular basis) said the first thing to me.  It means "I don't understand your speech/words."  We were talking about fireworks and I am not surprised she couldn't understand me.
The next day, I was told by a taxi driver the second thing - "Your Chinese is very good." Generally, taxi driver's say that to anyone who can spew out a few intelligible words or phrases.
One day, I ordered tea in a restaurant.  The restaurant owner didn't understand a word I said.  And "tea" is a pretty easy word.
Another day, I asked for napkins- a much harder word.  The waitress understood me immediately.

I've taught ESL in the US for many years.  I've taught young kids, high school students, immigrants, refugees, academics, doctoral students, international teaching assistants, pre-TOEFL students and visiting scholars.  I'd like to write them all a letter that says this:

Dear Former Student,
Everything that I ever told you about learning a language is true.
Teacher Sandy

What have I told them?  What reality am I living right now?

* Learning a language is hard work.  Chinese has few similarities with English.  One of the few is that it is a Subject/Verb/Object language.  However, time goes in a different place in  Chinese.  In English you say "I went to church today."  In Chinese you say "I today went to church."  It took me about three months to grasp this and I still struggle with it.  Chinese and English have no shared cognates and only a few loan words.  You can not figure out a Chinese word based on how it sounds.
*  Languages are not translations of each other.  The word "pinguo" is not a translation of the English word "apple."  It's the Chinese word for the fruit apple.  That may seem wrong but language learners have to get away from translation.  It doesn't help to tell the teacher "That doesn't make sense in English."  It's about Chinese grammar, not English grammar.
*  The burden of comprehensibility is on the language learner, not the listener.  It is not the job of the person that I am talking to to try to understand me.  It's nice when they really try.  But it is really my job to work on my pronunciation.
Chinese is a tonal language.  The tone that is used changes the meaning of the word.  A Chinese language learner must believe this completely.  "Qing Wen" can mean "Excuse me" or "Kiss me" depending on the tone used.  I just hope I haven't asked any strangers to kiss me!
In graduate school, I did research on teaching Chinese speakers how to improve their English pronunciation.  English is a stress-time language.  We use word stress or intonation to change the emotional meaning of the sentence.  So think of the sentence "I feel angry."  The word you stress "I feel angry."  "I feel angry"  "I feel angry" changes the semantic meaning of the sentence.  In Chinese, changing tone means changing the meaning of the word completely .  It's like asking for an apple and saying the word orange and being upset when someone gives you an orange.
Here is a great article about tones.

Why is important to learn the language of the country where we live?  Well, this is where we live!  This is the language of our country.  This is where we have come to love and serve people.  Chinese is the heart language of the people here.

People have asked "Don't they speak English?"  No, "they" don't.  Only 1% of mainland Chinese people speak English fluently enough to have a really high level conversation.  Many of them live and work overseas.
Other people ask if the signs and directions are in English.  No, they aren't.  They are in character's and pinyin and sometimes English.  If you are in a big city that has many tourists, you might get lucky.  But we don't live in one of those cities!

Learning Chinese has been a huge challenge for me.  Despite my background in teaching and linguistics, it's been very slow going.  I am in language class 15 hours a week and work with a language helper three hours a week.  Plus homework and real life practice.
I cringe at the mistakes I have made.  Twice in class, I have said accidental obscenities- one for a male body part and one for a female body part.  I often call my husband the wrong name.  His Chinese name and the word for "carrot" sound alike to me.
I recently found out that the way that I have been saying "Come in" to my sweet language helper is what you say to animals and children.  She has never said a word.
I have days when conversations just seem to flow.  I understand the people who are talking to me and they seem to understand me.  Then there are days where I just feel like I'll  never get it.  As I was trying to say a word correctly, one of my teacher's kept saying "It's fourth tone, it's fourth tone."  I finally had to say "I know it's fourth tone!  I just can't get it out of my mouth."
One day, writing characters so hard that I had to step out of the class during the break and going down to another floor to compose myself.  I thought I was going to cry in class.
I told a friend of mine that some days I wanted to walk around with a sign on my chest that says "I have an advanced degree."  Except I don't know the characters so someone else would have to write it for me!

But it's worth it.  The hard work, the blank looks, the simple conversation that are at a two year old's all progress.  Learning the language of another country is a way of honoring that country.  It's a way of understanding the thought and culture of your new country.  It's hard work but worth it just the same.

Now off to do homework.


Jan said...

Keep up the hard work Sandy. You know that it'll be worth it! (But I do admit, that's why we are in PNG- we didn't have to learn a new language!)

Patricia said...

Oh the high cost of incarnation! I'm deeply touched by your humility, and grateful for your sacrifice.