Speaking and Dreaming in Chinese
March 12, 2012

~ By Dev Lewis

‘Ni hao……xie xie”, “hello….thank you”; a pair of words that just about any traveler to China uses. But, as anyone whose traveled to a country that speaks a foreign language will tell you, the language barrier has a major effect on anyone’s experience. It keeps the culture, the sounds, and people far away. Language is culture, and it is one of the driving reasons I decided to learn to speak Chinese a year and a half ago, after I knew China and South Asia was a region I was passionately interested in.

I’m not a natural learner of languages but I already speak more than one language, and can read and write in two scripts. Learning Mandarin came with significant and unique challenges. There is no alphabet, instead names, objects, everything that exists, is represented by its own unique character. There are over 10,000. You have to both learn how to draw it as well as write it using Pinyin, the sound represented by the English alphabet. Then you have the tones, of which there are four. There are a laundry list of words that are spelt the same way using pinyin, but have different tones, ever so slight, but enough to indicate a whole different word. No one ever said Chinese was easy, but it is a steep learning curve and coming into the country with a year and a half of Chinese, enough to place me at intermediate 2, I knew I was in for a challenge.

Since arriving in Shanghai, perhaps the biggest challenge has been listening. As you may imagine, this fundamental difficulty is a major choker in maintaining a conversation. As I mentioned above, words can sound very similar to the untrained ear, and the speed at which it is spoken meant I was consistently about 5-6 seconds too slow in terms of understanding what I was hearing, that’s if I even knew the words. This can then affect confidence in speaking because when you’re not really sure what was said, and if you don’t speak clearly with the right emphasis on the tones, you will not get your point across. I’ll give you a simplistic example. A few times when I’ve gotten into a taxi, I read the address to the driver, but he couldn’t recognize what I was saying. After a few attempts I started saying the name with an emphasis on different tones and then, maybe on the 4th attempt, he understood. I was quite baffled because to me they all sounded more or less the same.

Then you have the characters. Going to restaurants can be very confusing and troublesome if they don’t have an English menu or one with pictures, because each dish has its own name and often restaurants give dishes their own name. Even for the most advanced Chinese speakers (as a foreign language) I know, menus are incredibly difficult to understand. This is clearly an area where language can act as a cultural barrier. Although many big or popular restaurants in Shanghai have English menus, or ones with pictures, you stand to miss out on some of the best food from the smaller, local restaurants, which is a big part of Chinese culture. Lucky for me, I will eat (almost) anything, and with enthusiasm, so I’ve been able to break that barrier. Also, over the past month my speaking skills have improved greatly, and I am able to identify the types of meats, or simply converse with the fuyen (waitress) as to what I should order.
Shanghai is an international city, and there are English signs when needed, I know that it will not be as easy when I travel to other parts.

Studying here at ECNU, I am taking an intensive language class at the intermediate level 2. I have class for 2 hours, 4 days a week, and in 3 weeks of classes, I have been force fed almost ¾ of a semesters worth of what I would learn in the United States. I’ve been required to learn an average of 25 characters a night, with constant tests, quizzes and language application exercises. Whilst it has been mentally exhausting, every week I feel like I have a whole new repertoire of words opening up my communication and thereby my environment by that much more.

My roommate is Chinese, and although he can speak English very fluently, I do manage to practice a lot of what I learnt with him, picking up some from him. I’m also starting to make more local friends, through playing football or otherwise. I’ve often found that an interesting method of practicing is trying to have a conversation with the taxi driver. I’ve attempted this a few times, to increasingly positive results. Cabbies can be an excellent source of information, in terms of finding the best local places to eat or random facts about the city (as I’ve learnt from my Dad over the years). My ability now gives me the confidence to open such avenues of communication, and more. Many people have often said that Chinese people tend to be slightly “cold” in their behavior. Often, during my travels in South-East Asia, I have found that to be true. Speaking to them in their native language makes a big difference in their attitude. Interacting with people across the city, a wai guo ren (foreigner) speaking Mandarin brings out a special smile, or even a “special discount” when bargaining (not quite sure I believe them on that one though).

A month of living in the commercial heart of China, it’s more than clear that China is set to be at the forefront of many things to come. Opportunity is ripe, for those that dare. Foreigners have a distinct competitive advantage in the economy but living here as an employee of a foreign multi-national aside, it is difficult, to say the least, to take advantage of such opportunities. This is not a free market economy, and a certain guanxi or “local networks” is essential. Being able to speak the language is necessary to building theses networks. Learn to speak Chinese and the Middle Kingdom is yours to explore. So this is one incentive in working hard towards this goal. I have no doubt that learning Chinese has been one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever taken on, but with every passing day, I’m further convinced it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.

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