Lost in Translation


Today I had a day where I became completely and utterly fed up of trying to learn Chinese. Sat at the table in our living room, hunched over my Chinese textbook and realising that I still had not successfully memorised the vocabulary and sentence structure from elementary Chinese chapters, resisting the urge to lob my notebooks across the room was exceptionally hard.

Before coming out to China, studying Chinese was purely incidental, a necessity of deciding to come out on student visas so we could stay for around 5 months worry free. However, it quickly became the part of our day-to-day lives that I most enjoyed. Not to mention the fact that it was fairly essential to get at least the basics down as fast as possible since the frequency of English speakers out here is minimal at best. After 4 months of university, 4 days a week I was full of enthusiasm for learning and although I struggled with each lesson I dutifully filled notebook after notebook with endless notes and shaky lines of Hanzi. However, I can fill all the notebooks in the world and it’s still useless if I don’t commit their contents to my long-term memory. And this still seems to be a constantly uphill battle.

As I’ve said before on this blog I don’t have a head for languages. This is in no way me being modest, it’s an undeniable truth. Arts subjects have never been something that I’ve sailed through or indeed particularly enjoyed. Instead my brain is much more wired to scientific facts and maths problems…although the fact that I have forgotten 99.9% of what I learnt during my undergraduate may contradict this fact. Despite having known that this wasn’t something I was going to find at all easy, further enhanced by the fact that Chinese is genuinely one of the most difficult languages to learn, I can’t help but get increasingly frustrated at myself for still lagging behind my own naïvely projected learning trajectory, stuck instead in the beginners stages. Essentially my current levels of learning related rage can be fully attributed to my bruised ego at not being as smart as I might have liked to think I was.

However, even at the height of my battle with the language, small victories can be won. To prevent the aforementioned notebook lobbing I took myself out of the flat to pick up some things and finally post a letter back to the UK – something that I have been avoiding for weeks as I was nervous about tackling the necessary post office communication myself. Having dutifully listened to the excellent Chinesepod and their podcasts about undertaking such a task, I successfully managed to explain to the post office cashier that my letter was to go via airmail to the UK. A brisk ‘keyi’ from the lady later and I was on my way with the letter finally en route to the Scottish student loan services.

At times like these I have to remind myself that when I first moved here I literally couldn’t even pick out where one syllable ended and another began when I listened to a native speaker – it was genuinely like listening to white noise. As Joe and I sat, terrified, in Istanbul airport surrounded by chattering Chinese crowds joining us on our transfer to Beijing I distinctly remember remarking to Joe that I couldn’t pick out a single sound, not one consonant or vowel was recognisable. Fast forward 9 months and, whilst I might not have a clue what 98% of the words being said to me mean, I can at least identify what the heck the sounds are and pick out the odd word which usually helps me muddle through.

Furthermore, having been guilty of speaking in a monotone for the first 5 months of being out here – not helpful when each syllable in Chinese is assigned one of 5 tones that must be used to convey the correct meaning – I am finally managing to slowly use the correct rising, falling or rising and falling combinations that comprehensible speaking requires. My 1-2-1 Chinese teacher, who bluntly told me last week that she thought I would be a slow student when I first started with her a couple of months a go, finally complimented my pronunciation and tones last week – a mighty victory as however kind my teacher might be (and she really is) she does not pay compliments lightly.

So whilst I stew in my bad mood over the fact that I STILL forget how to ask if there’s a bank nearby I need to reflect and remind myself of how far I’ve come. And also, in a weird way, how proud I should be of the fact that I was brave (read: mad) enough to move to a country where I didn’t speak a word of the language. Instead of focusing on how good I want my Chinese to be by the time I move back next summer (and I have ambitious plans!) I should set myself goals for the level I want to be at this time next month or how well I want to pass each of the weekly tests that my teacher sets me. Rather than constantly obsessing over what I can’t understand (which let’s face it, is most of the language) I need to celebrate each time I have a communication success, whether at the post office, in a restaurant or just exchanging pleasantries with neighbours in the hallway. Assuming tantrums are kept to a minimum and I keep up the study, slowly but surely I can only move forward and whilst it may not be even close to the pace I’d like, anything is better than chucking it all in and being one of those foreigners who relies only on sign language and pointing forever.


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