One time when I was revising for a German exam, my mother asked, “Don’t you know all the words yet?”

As a language student, I often hear variations of this question. Sometimes people ask for a demonstration, like I’m a dancing dog, and depending how much I like them I might actually say something in German or Chinese, or I might just make up something that more closely resembles Klingon than any language I can actually speak.

The question really depends on what you mean by fluent. I can get by with some mainstream Chinese media aimed at language learners, a slow Chinese podcast, short conversations, and I manage in most of my classes, which are taught entirely in Chinese. But I can’t exactly discuss the applications of Confucianism in modern China, or the nuances of Sino-Japanese relations. The cafe is where I dominate ( latte ? mocha ? with a shot of vanilla ? ), and I do well in restaurants beyond just pointing at things, and I’ve become a pro at ordering train tickets. But sometimes I hear an accent so thick I have to ask if they know how to speak Chinese, and if they can then would they please.

Sean knows

There are still times when I feel like I’ve anesthetised my face and I eventually manage to drool out a syllable or three. But there are a lot of topics and contexts in which I feel quite comfortable. I talk about quite a lot of things with one of my Chinese friends, the differences between the UK and China, the difficulties of language learning, our nations’ attitudes toward immigrants, plans for the future. When we’re just talking and cracking jokes and making small talk we tend to speak Chinese most of the time, and only switch into English occasionally. I have made maybe three intentionally funny comments using Chinese, which excludes mispronunciations, like the time a group of kids laughed because I told them “I died and went to heaven” rather than saying “I went to the Temple of Heaven”. Funny, but accidental.

Recently I felt my language come into its own when I’ve been hanging out with some of the Koreans from my classes. Often, our only common language is Chinese ( still working on my Korean ), and it’s rude to carry on a conversation and exclude them if not everyone speaks English. I have had conversations before using German in this way ( a Brit, a Russian, a Spaniard, a Kyrghyzstani, an American, and a German, outside a bar in Heidelberg, all speaking German ) but I couldn’t have imagined doing it in Chinese.

Class Lunch
4 Koreans, 2 Brits, an Indian, and a Japanese. And only Chinese to speak.

For all the jokes I make about my Chinese level and all the nights I cry myself to sleep wondering why I have subjected myself to this language, I realise I’ve come pretty far in two and a half years if I can use Chinese to talk proficiently with natives about things that matter to me ( or at least, more than pets and my pencil case), and also use Chinese as a shared language instead of English.

On the plane to Beijing, I wrote in my journal ( shock, I have a journal ) that I could never imagine being an “insider” of this language. I couldn’t imagine  not trying to fight my way in, while Chinese just wants to spit me out. I think I’ll need longer than a year in China to really get it down, but it’s comforting to feel that I am on my way to cracking this beast.

Short answer: No, mum. I don’t know all the words yet, but I’m trying.