Picture this. You’re sitting at a Starbucks with your best friend, enjoying your drink and conversation, when suddenly a little kid who you’ve never seen before walks up and starts talking with you. You think it’s cute and engage with the kid for a little while.
What happens next?
Presuming you’re living in a Western country, you’ll probably hear the kid’s parent start calling their child. Either that or they’ll come get their child and give you a quick apology. Why? First, because you’re never supposed to talk to strangers, and second, because it’s considered impolite to interrupt someone else’s private conversation.
It’s a little different in China.
Not everyone speaks Chinese the same way.
Before I first came to China, my naive, un-traveled self assumed that everyone here spoke the same language. Now I suppose technically everyone here does, but in practice sometimes it seems like there are hundreds of languages in this one country alone. Just like the many different accents of English (American, British, Australian, etc.), there are also many dialects of Mandarin. Many of them are based upon geographical regions, while others are based on the different ethnic minorities. And some of the dialects can be pretty hard to understand.
You know how Mandarin has four basic tones, right? Not so much here in Sichuan province! If you’re speaking the local dialect here, your words are slurred and your tones become melded into maybe two or three.
Having trouble making friends in China? Let me introduce you to the English corner!
I’m referring to a typically informal gathering where you’ll participate with anywhere from a handful to a hundred Chinese students, most of whom are eager to practice their English-speaking skills with you. Those whose English isn’t as strong will still join in the conversation, especially if they have a friend with good oral English skills.
Lest this all sound pretty straight-forward to you, let me warn you that there will likely be a few curve balls that get thrown your way. In order to help prepare you for the chaos that may ensue, I’ve compiled a list of five things that you should be aware of before diving into an English corner!
When my wife and I were first studying 汉语 (Chinese) last fall, we both felt that we wanted to take a long-term approach to language learning. Most people who travel in China for only a couple months focus primarily on their oral/listening skills. Even those who plan on staying for a year or two will adopt a similar approach. And this makes sense. Learning how to read and write requires extra time.
Knowing that we wanted to full immerse ourselves in the language and culture, we decided to learn everything at once – reading, writing, listening, and speaking. It obviously requires more work and means moving at a slower pace (than just learning how to speak), but it’ll hopefully give us more comprehensive understanding of the language.
I’m a very a detailed and methodical person in general, so this has been reflected in my studying habits. If you were to equate language learning to building a pyramid, I’m the guy who grabs one brick at a time and makes sure that each brick is arranged neatly before placing the next brick. My wife, on the other hand, would be the one to throw a ton of bricks onto a pile and then arrange them afterwards.
We’ve been living here now for three weeks already and I’m still trying to figure out a study routine that works for me. I’m sure my study habits will evolve over the course of the next couple years, but for now here’s what I’m involved with:
I love playing games. Board games, real-time strategy computer games, video games…oh yeah, and sports, too.
Those who have played any sort of game with me know that I can be a pretty competitive person. I particularly enjoy the thrill of playing strategy games (e.g. Agricola, Dominion, Settlers of Catan, Starcraft, etc).
The only downside about being competitive is that I generally hate losing.
Being married has a funny way of helping you see your blind spots, and for me my overly competitive spirit was one of them. My wife and I even had to stop playing games with each other for a time since we’re both pretty competitive. Thankfully, we’re now able to enjoy the occasional game with each other, such as Tiny Wings or Ticket to Ride. (I highly recommend both!)
Along the way, I’ve learned a handful of things about winning and losing.
I don’t know about you, but for me that’s just a nicer way of saying, “That’s weird.”
There are so many things I see here that I generally throw into the “weird” category. Like the way taxi drivers drive at breakneck speeds, zipping in and around other cars without so much as a honk or turn signal. Or when three (or more) people try getting onto a bus at the exact same time. Or the way locals all tend to stop and stare at a car accident but do nothing to help.
It’s almost instinctual – to regard something as bizarre because it doesn’t align with any of my beliefs or experiences. My immediate response is often to accuse their actions or beliefs as being silly or dumb. In the moment, I believe they are at fault. They are clearly doing it wrong.
But what I’m forgetting in these instances is that I am the foreigner.
I’ll admit it. Studying a new language is hard.
During high school I spent about three years studying French. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t take my classes more seriously. I can probably count with both my hands the number of things I can remember how to say en Français.
If you asked me why I didn’t study very hard, I’d say it was due to the fact that I had only had one specific motivation – to further my career. Where I grew up, speaking French was almost a requisite to get a decent job.
Now that I live in 中国 , I have plenty of reasons to learn the language.
Here’s one reason. I like food. Because the food here is so cheap, we eat out a lot. And I like knowing what I am about to order.
Yesterday evening, my wife and I went out for dinner to check out one of the 炒面 (stir fried noodles) shops that a friend recommended to us. Upon arrival, the restaurant owner asked us what we wanted to eat. There were about 30 items on the menu, and I recognized maybe 2 or 3 of them. So in my broken Mandarin, I attempted to order one of the few dishes that I could read: 番茄鸡蛋炒面 (fried noodles with egg and tomato).
Now my food ended being rather 好吃 (delicious). But for me it was the joy of understanding what I was about to order and successfully receiving what I wanted that was just as rewarding as the taste of my meal.
There are many more rewards that you will encounter upon learning another language! Here are 3 reasons why you should learn a new language.