This is how I think I must sound when I open my mouth and start speaking in Chinese. It elicits a very particular quizzical expression and the furrowed brow of a native who cannot understand me, yet doesn’t want to draw attention to my incompetence. I spit out a sentence I’ve been rehearsing for half a minute, then we spend the next 30 seconds trying to unscramble what I actually meant. In shops and the canteen, I normally resort to pointing, saying “this” and “that”, and eventually fall back on ad-hoc international sign language.
Unfortunately, when my Chinese fails me there is no possibility of falling back on English. Unlike in a lot of European countries, there is no basic standard of English, and you can’t expect anyone to understand you if you start speaking English ( especially if you speak British English, which I am told is quite difficult to understand ). So it’s Chinese or drown. I certainly wish I’d tried harder in Manchester/made more Chinese friends/brushed up on my characters before I came here/checked I knew a couple of words like “visa”.
As well as hacking my through daily interaction, slaughtering a language exchange, and generally swimming in the big wide Sinosphere, much of my contact which Chinese comes in classes, which is the reason I’m here after all. We read a text, either a dialogue or an article, where everybody reads a sentence aloud and your inaccuracies of pronunciation and character recognition are ingloriously exposed. Then sometimes we are forced to read “in unison” ( quotes because it’s normally a very disjointed hubbub of international accents at various speeds ). This is not to mention the 听写 (tingxie, “listen-write”) when we have to learn a couple of pages of characters and write them down according to the teacher’s pronunciation. And as Chinese isn’t phonetic, this can be pernickity. Students of Chinese the world over are probably familiar with this ( very Chinese ) style of learning.
My listening comprehension also just isn’t what it should be. I’m finding that when I string together a question for a language partner or a food vendor or someone, the response comes back at a dizzying speed. I’m forcing myself to listen to podcasts, both intensively and just in the background, in the hope that something will pierce my anglophone head.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to learning a language is fear of getting it wrong. Children learn languages better than adults, partly because they are physiologically predisposed to language learning ( greater number of synaptic connections, am I right? ), but also because they aren’t embarrassed to sound silly ( few people find it cute if you sound like a child and yet you’ve just entered your third decade ). Learning a language is uncomfortable, because you have to start all over again and can’t be who you usually are in your native language. It’s frustrating because the things I would like to express go way beyond what I can actually say. I’m constantly having to dumb myself down ( not that hard for me to do, some might say ).
That said, the pay off is pretty good. I know that from learning German. The height of language learning is when you can engage someone in their own language within the framework of their culture. When you can understand and be understood to the point where you’re not speaking a foreign language, or a language at all. You’re just speaking.
That feels a long way off.