Sunday, August 01, 2004

Back to life, back to reality...
That's right, I am back from China. While in China, for those who were not following along at that blog, I got horribly, horribly behind on blogging, so most of the China updating is going to be taking place after the fact, but that's okay, because I took notes and pictures so as not to forget anything.

I thought it would be good to do a little retrospection on the experience linguistically here, though. I have noticed that I seem to be travelling long term to places where I have fewer and fewer language skills each time. First I went to Chile for 5 months, where I was functionally fluent. Then I went to Japan for a year, where I was at least competent to understand people and get around, even if I couldn't express myself very well. And now I went to China for 5 weeks, where I vaguely remembered some of my one semester of Chinese from 2.5 years ago, which put me at doing better than most of the people on the trip, but still very much in the large group of idiotic lost people following Lee around saying, "What does that mean? How do I say this?"

I found the whole thing rather frustrating. We were not in a position to get regular Chinese lessons, so there was little I could do in the way of systematic improvement. I did spend a lot of time listening, so some of my vocabulary came back, and I could occasionally surprise Lee and/or random Chinese people with what I did understand, but that's not saying much in the grand scheme of things.

It's been a long time since I was that far back in the language learning process, and it reminds me that I have some definite starting strengths and weaknesses. I understand Chinese grammar rules quickly. I like identifying systems. Put me in a beginning language class, and I will always be the person reminding others in my group how to use the irregular question form or what have you. I'm also good at listening and picking up key words. I watch body language enough to combine the few words I can pick out with non-verbal cues, and I can basically piece together the conversation going on around me. What I can't do is open my mouth and speak with any kind of confidence, usually until I feel like I've been listening and absorbing enough of the language around me that I've attuned my mind and tongue. Of course, I like to watch and listen in my own native language more than I like to speak, so it's not as if this is out of character for me or in any way only related to foreign language acquisition. (Not that you'd be able to tell from my loquaciousness in the blogosphere. It's just that I've finally found a medium in which no one can interrupt me.)

Note that none of the above says anything about reading and writing ability. I will never forgive Chinese for inventing the character system and then getting the Japanese to adopt it. Syllabaries I can deal with, but a writing system that is completely unrelated to the sounds of the spoken language is just unnecessarily cruel. How am I supposed to be able to quietly pick up vocabulary on my own from a cohesive context? Of course, the person who helpfully tried to invent the pinyin system of Western phonetic symbols was, I have decided, completely demented and possibly evil to boot. If there was ever a less obvious way to represent the sounds of Chinese in a Western alphabetic manner, I never wish to see it. I am very happy that Grinnell no longer teaches pinyin to the beginning class, but instead uses the "bopomofo" syllabary, because nothing screws up an English speaker's pronunciation of already difficult Chinese words than seeing them spelled in front of him/her. I just stopped looking at our cheater sheet during our 3 brief Chinese lessons and simply watched the teacher's mouth, because seeing the pinyin letters just wrenched my brain too much. Listening to the other people in the class who had never had any experience with Chinese, or any other Asian language, invited a great internal struggle not to go into teacher mode with my own peers and end up taking over the class from the nice Chinese woman railroaded into teaching us. I'm sure Lee was glad to escape attending the classes after the first day.

In any case, should I ever go back to China, I will definitely refresh my Chinese before going, because I am not spending another 5-week-stint being unable to ask the simplest questions and having to carry business cards for all the destinations I wish to go to in order to communicate with the taxi drivers. There's only so much blatant ignorance I can stand in myself.

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