Sunday, September 30, 2012

How To Live Your Life And Blog Too

I early on learned that if I blogged what I was doing, I could find time to do all the things I want to do and keep the blog alive.  Writing about things forced me to think about them more, do some research about them, and generally learn a lot more.  And all that helped me remember things.

But blogging seems to be taking a lot more time away these days.  Partly my standards for myself have gotten higher and I spend more time documenting and cleaning up.  Partly, though, I'm involved in more things, plus things show up to interrupt me - lots of things around the house that need attention, etc.

Some things I'm reluctant to burden you with, but we are taking a Chinese class through the UAA Confucius Institute and if I'm going to keep up, I'm going to have to do some sharing here.

I've studied Chinese on and off since about 1989 when I taught in Hong Kong for a year and we took a once a week Cantonese class so we could talk to the vendors in the markets  and things like that.  Then I got involved with a research project in Beijing and decided I needed to study Mandarin just to get a little more sense of what was going on around me.  (Having spent a year as an undergraduate in Germany, I was able to get my German good enough to keep up with my classes and to discover how liberating it was to be able to escape my native language.  Nothing wrong with English, but your language limits you in subtle and not so subtle ways.  [Go here for a post on color in different languages and a link to a post on whether language affects how you think.]

There were a couple of years of serious study.  Then I was distracted by other things for about ten years before getting serious again.  And that lapsed and I spent time in Thailand reviving my old Peace Corps Thai and seemingly painting over the brain cells that stored Chinese words.

I came to believe, through my experiences, that if you ever get to the point where you can speak a language pretty fluently, without thinking about translating from your own language at all, but actually thinking and even dreaming in the other language, then you basically have it for life.  You'll lose a lot of vocabulary if you stop, but most of the stuff you really knew is buried in there and will come back.  Often when you speak, words just pop out of your mouth, that you couldn't have retrieved if you'd have been asked, say,  "What's the Thai word for butterfly?"    That's been the case for German and for Thai for me.  They're there and I just need to get my brain to shift to them and those brain cells slowly start to warm up and get where I can communicate - not like a native - but effectively enough.

But I never got to that point in Chinese.  And so my return visits have been painful exercises of trying to revive weak braincells and creating new ones to replace the ones that have simply died.  Chinese is also harder than German or Thai.

I thought German was hard after junior high Spanish.  The grammar has all sorts of twists and turns to trip you up, but it does use a Latin based alphabet, and there is an enormous overlap between English and German words - swim and schwimmem, house and haus, speak and sprechen, etc.

Thai added a totally new alphabet, few shared words (ie Pepsi) and, even more daunting, tones.  We have tones in English - but they are related to whole sentences, such as questions ending higher pitched than statements.  In Thai, the tones go with the individual syllables and it's better to get the sounds of the consonants and vowels a little off than to mess up the tones if you want someone to understand you.

Chinese has tones like Thai, though slightly different ones, but the killer part of Chinese is that there's no alphabet.  With a phonetic alphabet, you can figure out words you've never seen before.  But not with characters.  Each character represents a word.  Yes, they have created a Western style alphabet - pinyin - but that's to help people struggling to learn the characters.  And yes, the characters aren't all completely unique.  They share different elements that are in other characters, but you do have to remember each character   individually.  And that's been my biggest problem - keeping the characters straight.  Writing them without checking is, for the most part, a futile exercise if you don't do it for several years. 

But it's coming back easier this time.  In part because I went further along in the past and we are going back to almost beginning.  I recognize more characters and after being like the deer in the headlights the first night, my Chinese brain cells are coming back to life.

And the teachers at the Confucius Institute are terrific.  That's partly because they use what I think is the right method for teaching a foreign language, very similar to how the Peace Corps taught us Thai and taught us how to teach English.  Lots of oral repetition and good progression in a class session from the sounds to the vocabulary to the sentences each building on the other.  Here's an example of some of the vocabulary I'm carrying around.  These are from lesson 6 - there were 31 characters in one list, 12 in a second one, and 22 supplementary words.

Character English pinyin
to; for gěi
打电话   to make a phone call  dǎ diàn huà
 speech; talk words huà
   (on phone) Hello, Hey  wèi;wéi
上午  morning shàngwǔ

I've got to run.  I've got a book club meeting tonight and some errands to run and maybe I can get a little time at Powerline Pass before the book club which is meeting on the hillside.

1 comment:

  1. Years ago, I realized China was going to become a world economic player when I heard that the catch phrase peppering their speech was: Fat choy.
    I was told it means "GET RICH!"



Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.