Even though my iPhone doesn’t actually function as a phone over here, it’s fair to say that I would be pretty lost without it. Since touching down in China, both Joe and I have been using a host of apps to help us in our quest to learn Mandarin. Without an app called Pleco, an electronic dictionary complete with pinyin (拼音) and Hanzi (汉字) translation, audio recordings of what the words sound like and even a handwriting tool which allows us to scribble characters onto our iPhone screens to translate, we wouldn’t be able to get by. Not least because it’s the only way we have been able to painstakingly translate the takeaway menus from our local restaurants. Having either swiped the menu cards or taken sly pictures of the menu boards behind the tills, we literally spent hours poring over them, transcribing each character onto our phones and writing out a translated version. Thankfully we now pretty much have set orders from each place which saves us a lot of time. A more upmarket meal anywhere further afield still requires a picture menu!
Obviously pre-app days we would have had dictionaries but the thought of lugging around the tome that is the Chinese-English dictionary and searching the pages for each character is pretty bleak. Not least because it doesn’t have a handy audio recording to correct your pronounciation when you are completely off! I once left my iPhone in the flat. Even though it doesn’t work on Chinese networks and is essentially useless as a mobile phone device outside of my flat’s Wifi, I still felt actual panic without it in case I found myself in a situation where I needed to ask/understand something and I didn’t have Pleco to hand to hastily type into, read from and/or point at desperately. Situations where we require new phrases or vocabulary are always preceded by a Pleco session where we queue up the words we need and it’s become a form of language comfort blanket.
Several apps, such as Memrise and Pleco also come with a series of tests and flashcards to assess your knowledge of the Chinese characters, Hanzi (汉字). In a bid to at least have something to show on my CV when I eventually make my return to the UK, I am keen to work my way through the HSK exam system, the internationally recognised exam system to test Chinese proficiency. With six levels in total I am hoping in our planned one and a half years out here I can at least make it through HSK3, which would deem me intermediate in Chinese. For now, I am studying for the HSK1 which I hope to sit at the end of my first university semester. Comprising both listening and reading sections, it requires me to know 150 basic Chinese characters, grammatical structures and simple sentences. So far I can read around 60 Chinese characters…and that’s on a good day when I have really been hammering the flashcard tests. Whilst my reading is coming on, my writing skills still leave a lot to be desired and even with those I can read, I often struggle to remember how to write them myself. Each character has it’s own specific stroke order which theoretically should make the character easier and neater to write, if I could remember what the heck that order was!
Once again, I’ve been relying on my iPhone for writing practice and have become slightly addicted to an app named Skritter which tests your ability to remember and write characters correctly on your screen. As with anything else, practice makes perfect and, using more old fashioned methods, I have pages in my notebook filled with the same characters just written out again and again.
As the characters become a predominant feature of my university classes and less and less pinyin is used when reading and writing, it is immensely satisfying when I realise I can read short questions and write the responses out correctly. Outside of our classes, I can now pick out small parts of signs, notices and (thankfully) menus which I can understand. Small victories like that keep me motivated when I get frustrated and make me think that maybe, just maybe I can get to the crucial 3,000 character mark which is the number touted as being able to read a newspaper. For now I’ll think I’ll have to stick with reading and writing about birthdays, family members and what to buy in a grocery store. A recent piece of homework I wrote with some very basic facts about myself is below (I might be showing off a little although it’s likely to be riddled with mistakes!)
我叫Kirsten。我的家在苏格兰，苏格兰离四川很远。 我想念我的家人。 我家有四口人：妈吗，爸爸和两个妹妹， 其中一个是 双胞胎妹妹。 我们长得很象， 但是我更高。我现在学习汉语，来中国以前我在大学工作。