Tuesday, July 17, 2007

If it were not for modern technology, I would not be able to learn Chinese

For the two of you out there distraught over the scarcity of this furry, young scribbler's commentary of late, fear not. It is not a sign of ebbing interest in making my little contribution to the Enlightenment, rather quite the opposite.

As I said I was going to do a while back, I have cut back on writing and opted to invest more of my cerebral stock in my own Enlightenment, in the hopes that my being better informed will make this website more useful.

Certainly makes sense, doesn't it?

The biggest payoff yet of the past few weeks is that I have become completely fluent in Chinese. Yes, dear readers, I am no longer the fledgling Chinese student who vacillates between unflinching determination to wrestle his tongue into strange positions at lightning quick intervals and utter will-crushing frustration to understand the difference between 台灣 (tai2wan1) and 太晚 (tai4wan3).

Those days are gone. It's the straight and narrow from here out.

Gone are the days of only eating food at restaurants with pictures on the menus. No longer do I hesitate asking the young lady at Watson's, "Where could I find some cream for this heat rash I've had for the last three weeks because the punishing heat and humidity grant me little respite from my near constant 'moist' existence, which the darker parts of me can't seem to handle, if you know what I mean."

....okay, so obviously I'm exaggerating the reality of my still-burgeoning command of Chinese, but it would be hard to convey the progress I've made over just several weeks. Take for instance the other night, Fanfan asked me to buy some more of the Neutrogena cream that she uses for her skin on my way home from work. After walking around Watson's for a couple of minutes, I almost instinctively started walking for the door. Having been here for so long without being able to communicate, I had been conditioned to give up any searches that weren't fruitful and wait for Fanfan to come with me or write a note. Sometimes, I would just call her and get her to translate for me.

As I was making my way to the door, I made eye contact with the teenage(-looking) girl that was working. Her look was half wondering what I was looking for and half fear that I would ask for help in English. Just as I was about to pass, I stopped myself.

For God's sake, just ask. Try at least. I told myself. This is what ensued (to the best of my memory)*:

"小姐, 請問," [Miss, excuse me] I studdered. "我找一個東西給我女朋友, 可是我不知道中文怎麼說." [I'm looking for something for my girlfriend, but I don't know how to say it Chinese.] She nodded in that quick one-thrust half shrug, half nod way that a lot of Asian people do. I was pretty content with myself up to this point, then it hit me, though that I didn't know how to say "cream" "lotion" "moisturizer" "liquid" etc. I don't know how to say "square," since it comes in a square bottle.

"等一下" [Hold on] I said, trying to formulate some sort of coherent explanation of the substance I was looking for. "我找....是白白的東西." [It's a white thing] I was using 東西 (dongxi, thing) as my universal identifier as something that is tangible, though I have know idea if that's understood so loosely in Chinese. I wanted to say substance.

"我女朋友洗了澡,"I continued, "就馬上用這個東西給他皮." [My girlfriend uses it right after she gets out of the shower for her skin]. I was particularly hung up on how to say uses it "for her skin," so I used the only form I know which is that "do something for someone" format which translates more or less to "do something give someone."

I should mention that every time I paused, searching for more words to string together, the patient little saleslady was tossing out words, as though we were playing charades -- which we, in part, were, since I was acting out the application of skin cream when I talked about the "東西" and pinching my skin when I said the word . Every time, I had to stop to say, "對不起, 我不知道什麼意思." [I'm sorry, I don't know what that means.]

Finally, I looked down and saw the Neutragena logo. "這種貨!" [This sort of product] I blurted, "Neutrogena!" To my surprise, she didn't seem to understand. I'm sure that wasn't the correct word to use, but I thought at least it was close enough to be understood.

"它就是Neutrogena的貨. 然後什麼人要水留皮裡, 就用這種東西." [It's a Neutrogena product. If someone wants to keep water inside their skin, they just use this thing] I said. "它的瓶像--" [the bottle looks like--] I made a square shape with my hands. Again she suggested more words, all of which I didn't know. I was beginning to think I had dug myself into a hole. We were walking around the store, when she bent over and picked up exactly what I was looking for!

I thanked her as we walked to the cash register. She asked me how long I had been in Taiwan. I told her that I had been here for a year but made sure to add that I had only studied Chinese for several months. She complimented my Chinese. I thanked her again and said Chinese was hard to learn. She told me that she thought English was hard. I told her I was a teacher, and I knew that English is quite difficult.

I left the store quite proud of myself. Not one word of English – unless you consider “Neutrogena” English -- was spoken in our broken conversation, and I came out with what I was looking for.

What makes me so happy about this is that this was the most difficult time I’ve had so far with Chinese where I didn’t just accept defeat and leave. Lately, I’ve been speaking so much Chinese at home that I have noticed a distinct change in the way Fanfan’s family treats me. They have never been, by any stretch of the imagination, cold or inhospitable to me. Quite the opposite. Yet, one major consequence of my previous Chinese language deficit was that I was never spoken to but spoken of. Occasionally Fanfan’s parents would say things to me, and I would always respond, “我不懂” [I don’t understand] to which they would always respond “我知道” [I know].

Now, though, even when Fanfan is sitting write next to me, they talk to me, instead of talking to her about me and letting her tell me what they just said. The best part about that is that I understand the lion’s share of what they say to me!

What follows is the feeling you must experience if you want to learn any language, the sort of high you get from understanding, and being understood, in a language you never thought you’d be able to speak. It is a sort of high that makes itself stronger. Once you get that one spark, that one kick, your momentum increases itself because all you want to do is keep studying and building that inertia.

What does this have to do with modern technology?

Well, for the first couple of weeks after my classes as NTU (台大) ended in May, I was having trouble forcing myself to read my book and keep my Chinese at least up to snuff with what it was when I finished classes. I had told myself that I would finish the second half of the book we started (meaning fifteen chapters) on my own, using my daily life living with a Taiwanese family as my supplement. It became pretty obvious that that wasn’t working when I found myself spending all of my free time either reading the news (in English) or playing God of War II for hours on end on Fanfan’s little sister’s PS2. I would try to force myself to study, but I physically couldn’t pay attention.

Then, the lightbulb.

Through the good graces of a father who is mildly averse to the trappings of modernity (doesn’t wear a watch, doesn’t like wallets -- keeps his credit cards wrapped in a rubber band -- doesn’t have a cell phone, etc.) I was given a PDA which he had been given. He had no use for the thing, it had already sat for months unused in a closet in our house when he said, “Oh, would you be interested in this?”

I took it, telling myself I would use it to take quick verbal notes of all of the things bouncing around in my head. Use it as my organizer, keep myself on the straight and narrow.

That didn’t work. I still found myself writing my to-do list on my hand.

Then, around December, I found PlecoDict. This is a great little program that allows me to search terms in English or Chinese. I can enter Chinese by writing a word I see on the display screen or by typing pinyin.

I bought plecodict and only played around with it occasionally for the following sixth months until about three weeks ago, when I remembered that it has a flashcard function. I spent one Sunday going through the entire first fourteen chapters of my Chinese book, quizzing myself and inputting any troublesome words into the system.

I know have all of the difficult, hard to remember words from the first twenty-one chapters of the book in the system (almost three hundred words), separated by chapter and marked by difficulty level. I spend all of my time during my commute to and from work, free time at the office, any moment I have to spare quizzing myself repeatedly. That means that I've gotten about 150 new words and phrases under my belt in the last two weeks. Once I finish the book, I should have about a thousand words under my belt. This is only about a fourth of what "they" say you should know to be fluent, which is frustrating at first thought, but I have to keep reminding myself that new words will be more easily absorbed as I get more comfortable using the language.

The result of these daily quizzes has been amazing. Sure, I’m still far from fluent, but I’ve seen my comprehension sky-rocket. Sure, speaking is still hard, but that is the hardest part of learning any language. I’m confident that with a constantly improving vocabulary, my grammar will quickly start to improve with it (since I use Chinese with nearly everyone at home, even Fanfan – as long as her patience permits).

The other day watching TV with the whole family at lunch, I started mumbling to myself, reading the twenty or thirty word, two-line headline at the bottom of the television about Ma Ying-jeou’s “long stay” program in Kaoshiung. As I started to read, my voice started building a little as I got more and more surprised that I knew the next word and the next word. As I read, everyone started to look at me in shock. I got hung up on the word [to move], but they all blurted it out and I finished the last words. Everyone gasped.

你好厲害!” [You’re so strong/capable/smart!] yelled Fanfan’s father grinning from ear to ear.

I know I was reading at about a seven-year-old level, and I was being spoken to like an even younger kid, but I didn’t care. They were speaking to me. They were speaking to me in Chinese, and I understood!

*by the way, anyone willing to correct me on my grammar, I would really appreciate it. One problem is that my vocabulary is increasing exponentially, but my grammar is still quite basic. Since, it's only been a week or two since I've started speaking on a regular basis, this will start to improve the more I speak, but, in any case (on any matter, not just my Chinese grammar), correction and suggestion is always welcome with me. However, don't worry about looking up any vocabulary that I mention not knowing.


  1. I also studied Chinese, but at the China Institute here in NYC. I needed to use the tapes, as my wife, who is from Hong Kong, would not help me. The first time I said "ni hao" to my mother-in-law, she said "Huh? Oh, hi!". I then gave up on getting help from anyone!

    So it's good that your girlfriend's family is so supportive.

  2. I'm glad to hear someone else uses the PlecoDict flashcards.

    It's the only viable method (for me) to make flashcards for a large number of words.

    Something is lost in not actually writing out the cards (which I'm trying to get back by using it for writing drilling), but otherwise it is an amazing convenience. Especially when you can add any new words you encounter in daily life straight from the definition page.

  3. dts, Fanfan's parents have been much more welcoming and patient than a lot of other parents here. They've been a huge help to me.

    Tyler, your totally right about how big a help plecodict is. About not writing the cards, though, what I do is I change the ranks of all of my cards. I give a 1 to all of the words that I never forget, then from 3 to 6 for varying levels of difficulties. Then, after practicing for several weeks, changing the ranks accordingly, I write down all of the 4-6 on the paper you can see in the picture at the top of the post. If that doesn't work after a couple of weeks, I do it again.

  4. That's a good idea about writing down the words that you stubbornly can't learn. I do rank changing too, automatically based on whether I say I remembered it or not.

    It's funny, I use higher numbers to mean I know a word, instead of the other way around. The plecodict author seemed to take pains to assure you could do this either way, even though it is completely arbitrary.

    Personally I think the flashcard feature support TOO much personalization. It's daunting the first time you look at it (and non-obvious enough that you have to read the manual). As a result I think a lot of people don't use it. I hope that in the next version he has a few "default" settings for those people who aren't already anal about customizing their previously used weird systems.

  5. 1pinecone10:39 AM

    I'm always really impressed when non-native Mandarin speakers learn how to read Chinese characters because it's so much more difficult to learn than English in my opinion. The concept of tones is a total throw off. And the fact that literal translations don't make sense most of the time! Oh, the jokes my brother and I used to respond to our parents with, like approximately = qi ma = ride horse. I remember slaving away in Chinese school on Saturday mornings, complaining that I didn't get to watch Saturday morning cartoons. But I'm glad I actually stuck with it for a good part of my childhood. Everyone's now asking me to teach them!

    It's definitely just me being particular, but I bugs me when people ask me if I speak Chinese. I speak Mandarin, not Chinese. ;)

  6. Good for you. Mandarin is a difficult language to learn.
    FY!-you're not the only redhead in Taiwan!