Well, I’m not dreaming in Chinese yet. Honestly, after four more months of study, I wasn’t really expecting to. Chinese is not a quick and easy language to learn. This week is the end of the semester for me; I leave soon for a retreat in Thailand and will return shortly before Chinese New Year when the entire country takes a holiday for a couple of weeks. Most university students finished their semester a couple weeks ago and primary and secondary schools finish this week. On a day to day basis it is sometimes hard to see my Chinese progress. But as I take this opportunity to reflect on the last few months, I can see that I have actually made quite a bit of progress.
One of the things I’ve learned is that I knew more Chinese before I arrived than I thought I did. I studied for four years in college and then lived in China for three years. When I left China I was able to function at a basic level, but I hadn’t formally studied during that time so I didn’t think I had learned that much beyond knowing how to use my book learning. Once I started formally studying again now I realized how many things I had actually learned—I would understand words but have no idea how to write them down (which generally means I never formally studied it). The hours of Chinese I’ve listened to in the past have also helped me have passable pronunciation and a sense of how Chinese grammar works.
My literacy has improved over the last few months. Listening and speaking are often the most prized skills in second language learning, but reading and writing are also very useful–especially when the written language is as different from English as Chinese is and you live in a social media culture. Some Westerners learn to speak Chinese without learning the characters; when I took the placement test at my school they asked if I wanted to learn characters. I said yes, because I do want to be at least a semi-literate person. My reading has definitely improved in the last few months, which makes my life so much easier. When I came home a couple of days ago and that little piece of paper was stuck to my door, I could read it, so I knew that I needed to go to the apartment management office to get a letter. It also means that I can use apps on my phone, like the map app to help me get from place to place and an app to order food delivery. As I make more Chinese friends I can also participate in Chinese social networking. All small examples, but they add up in being able to communicate and live well here. And the difference in frustration level from “it all looks like chicken scratch” to “I can tell this is a junk text message” is huge. I still have work to do to be able to easily read the newspaper, short stories, or the Bible but I am making progress in that direction.
I can also see progress in my listening comprehension. When I think back to how my teacher talked to me a few months ago and how she speaks now, I can see a big improvement. When I was starting with her, she was speaking at a clear and slow pace and using a pretty basic vocabulary. Thanks to her help, I could understand most of what she said. Now, she speaks at a faster speed and can use a bit more complicated vocabulary and sentence structures and I can now understand it. The other place I’ve noticed a big improvement is in listening to sermons. When I first arrived, I wasn’t understanding much of them. I would maybe get a few sentences out of a 45 minute sermon. Now, I am far away from understanding a whole sermon, but I usually understand at least some of it. Some of my listening ability depends on the preacher’s accent, topic, and how clearly he or she has structured the sermon. I do the best when the text is a story and the structure uses lots of first….., second…., finally…. So again, I have a long way to go, but I’m making progress.
Overall, I am more confident in using Chinese and have less fear about it. Language learning is emotionally hard for me. Learning a language requires you to not know a lot of things. It requires you to not be in full control. It requires practice and mistakes, because if you wait to be perfect you’ll never get there. Unfortunately for me, I like to know, to be in control, and to do things as close to perfectly as possible. So learning a language pushes me out of my comfort zone. I am learning humility, because there are still so many things I can’t do and can’t understand and can’t say. I am usually in a state of partial understanding. There are so many ways to say things wrong. Usually they are just grammar errors, but sometimes say things like “I took the cold water out of the ice cream” (I meant out of the refrigerator). I think learning Chinese is another way God is sanctifying me. But even in the midst of the mistakes and humility, I am more confident in using Chinese. I am not afraid every time the phone rings, just nervous if the number is unknown.
As I reflect on these months of learning, the thing I am proudest that I persevered. December was the hardest month. At first I could see progress every day. Every day I would understand a little more of the things around me. And then, progress slowed a little bit. Or at least it got harder to see. But I kept going to class, kept doing my homework, kept using Chinese. And in the last few weeks it has been a little easier and less like pulling teeth. So I’m thankful for the perseverance to keep working through this first rough patch, and hopefully it will continue when I hit the next one. And eventually, I hope I do get to dream in Chinese (and that I remember doing so)!