实事求是 (shí shì qiú shì)
On my last day of class before a summer break, I learned this phrase. It means “to call a spade a spade.” It captures many of the difficulties of learning Chinese. If you look at the characters, you’ll see that there are four different characters. Each one represents a different idea, or you could say is a different word. Then notice the pronunciation: 3 of the 4 characters have the same sound and two are even the same tone! The “shi” sound is the most used in Chinese. There is a tongue twister that is a long sentence of only words pronounced “shi” (in some combination of the 4 possible tones). Finally, this is a set phrase of 4 characters—there are hundreds (probably thousands) of these! Educated Chinese use them frequently to add color to their speaking and writing. I think they are really interesting, but I am not very good at remembering and using them. Maybe that can be my goal for next year. It seems the more I study the more I realize how far I have to go.
Even though Chinese is a notoriously difficult language, it is also beautiful and mysterious. All those proverbs add lots of color and interest. There is a long literary tradition. Five and a half months ago, I wrote about my Chinese learning progress. At the end of my second semester of study, I’m back with another update. Progress in language learning is a funny thing. Often it is hard to see, occasionally it is dramatic. It is almost never linear nor does it often fit into neat boxes. So let me list some anecdotes of things that have happened over the last few months.
- A cashier said my Chinese was really good when I responded to a question with a very simple response. A couple days later I said hello to someone and she declared my Chinese excellent. I found these compliments a little bit over the top and told my teacher about it. She thought that they were probably complimenting my pronunciation, which they could possible judge from just a few words, not fluency or overall language use. China is a very large country and there are lots of different accents or dialects, much more like England than the U.S. My pronunciation is pretty standard Beijing/northern Chinese, and apparently quite clear. Despite the difficulty of the tones, a few days ago someone else said my pronunciation is very clear.
- I think I’ve told a few people I’m studying Korean when I actually meant Chinese. One way to say Chinese is hànyǔ (汉语), and Korean is hányǔ (韩语). The difference is spoken Chinese is whether the tone goes up or down. One time I was talking to a neighbor in the elevator and she wondered “why are you studying here and not over there?” That’s the point at which I realized I must have messed up the tone and then clarified. I think that I made the same mistake talking with a taxi driver, but it wasn’t so clear and I was feeling too tired to try to clear it up.
- I am not afraid every time the phone rings anymore. At first, I was so nervous when my phone would ring. Now, I am only a little nervous that something will come up that I can’t deal with. I can receive calls from delivery guys or the apartment management office and make those calls, too. I’ve talked to my landlord several times on the phone (story in an upcoming post). I clarified directions to my house when I had a game night.
- I’m getting better at more formal and specialized Chinese. Most of the time I can at least pick up the main themes of sermons, and a lot of the time I can pick out some of the key points. This past week, the line that stayed with me is the God doesn’t forget us (this was not the main point of the sermon, but it is what stuck with me). I can also sing about 80% of most hymns now—I don’t always have time to fully understand what I’m singing, but I can recognize the characters and sing along.
- I’m having a harder time formulating proper sentences in English. I’ll be trying to put together a sentence in English and what my brain comes up with is: “We can meet at the ditie zhan.” What that sounds like when I talk to someone is “um…um…we can meet at the…ah, ah…subway station.”
- I was in the middle of a group discussion, mostly in English but some people switched over to Chinese. All of a sudden I was also speaking Chinese to explain my point. It was the first time I started speaking Chinese without consciously deciding to do so (at least in that sort of situation).
I haven’t reached that ultimate in language learning—dreaming in Chinese—but I am getting closer. I’m looking forward to a bit of a break to let my brain rest a bit and use Chinese in different ways. The time to practice and let some of what I’ve learned solidify will probably do me some good!