Tue, Jan 06, 2009 - Page 4 News List

Community Compass: The tears, joy and responsibility of learning Chinese

FROM CACOPHONY TO BEAUTY After studying for several years, someone might say: ‘You can communicate in Chinese.’ But that is by far not the end of the road

By David Pendery

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Like most foreigners who live in Taipei, I have spent much time studying Chinese. However, I never counted myself among those who come here to study the language full time. I arrived in Taipei for different personal and professional reasons, and did not think about studying Chinese until I had been here a few months.

I then recognized the practical necessity, with the baffling cacophony of Chinese buzzing around me forcing me to acknowledge that I needed to better understand the language; and also for cultural reasons, with the growing desire to learn more about the new society I found myself in. I entered my first Chinese class in fall 2000. Little did I know I had embarked on an endeavor that would change my life.

I am of two minds about my Chinese skills. On the one hand, I often feel discouraged, far less than fluent, hardly even conversational. During my learning process, there have been the hurts of sharp rebukes when I mispronounced a word, using the second instead of the third tone. Or the frustration of navigating through the seemingly endless repetition and re-use of sounds in Chinese: 是,事,十;付,父,赴;吉,即,急. During my first ­frustrating years of study there were times when I asked myself: How do they even understand each other?

On the other hand, I have experienced those joys that make one feel that one is crossing the Rubicon of second language acquisition. There was the time in Paris, eating at a Chinese restaurant, when I asked the waitress: 小姐,請給我一碗飯? There was the time I briefly conversed with a Chinese-speaking neighbor during a visit to my home town, as my old friend gaped in amazement. And then there was perhaps my high point, when at a recent party a Taiwanese man who I have known since I moved here observed me speaking Chinese with another friend, and announced: “David, I admit it. You can communicate in Chinese.”

My Chinese study can be divided into distinct phases. In the first phase, I gingerly began, studying as regularly as I could given that I had a full-time job. My problem during this period was that I spent most of my time silently learning new vocabulary and practicing writing Chinese characters, rather than actually speaking the language. My speaking ability stalled because of this method. This went on for about three years, and my progress was halting, but not unnoticeable.

I then took a big step and enrolled in a summer course at ­National Taiwan Normal University. This propelled me forward — but only for a short time, for immediately after this I was consumed by a number of other events in my personal life and had to stop studying altogether.

This went on for three years. During this time I continued to observe, learn and practice the language, but I was not studying diligently — the sine qua non of serious language learning. Finally, after that third year, I returned to study on my own, for an hour or two every morning. But once again I focused on vocabulary and writing, which as noted is not a truly effective approach.

People began to notice that I was speaking more, but I still felt that I struggled. At the end of this year, I yet again had to put away my Chinese studies to focus on a doctoral program I had entered — though I continued with my endless observations, questions and on-again-off-again conversation with friends and family.

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