Chinese Language Learning in America


Real easy, right!? Biang maintains its reputation as one of the most complex characters to write. Credit: Google Images

Trying to keep up with learning Chinese isn’t easy when you never studied in a disciplined manner from the onset, getting by with conversational Mandarin, or relying on your husband to translate and interpret when you so desired.

Although I’m not picking up new phrases, vocabulary, and grammatical structures as of late, I am doing what I can to retain the conversational fluency I had in the four years living in Xi’an.

I exercised those conversational Mandarin muscles poorly on Monday during a chance encounter with two overseas Chinese students wrapping up their CPA graduate studies at the university in town. I struggled to maintain a coherent conversation, displaying an abysmal “Engnese” (English mixed with Chinese). Here’s why I struggled, and no matter what language you may be learning, I will provide my two cents for upping your language prowess.

Many grammatical structures mirror those in the English language, however Mandarin’s past participle does not follow suit. I often explain how I lived in Xi’an for four years, but forget to specify I no longer reside there.

我说我在西安四年了,但我应该说我在西安呆过四年。I said I’ve lived in Xi’an for four years, instead of I lived in Xi’an for four years.

These statements communicate two very different notions to the receiver.

Other parts of the conversation I can recall:

‘不好意思打扰你们,是不是你们是中国人?’ 我也问他们‘你们从哪儿来的?你们是大学生吗?你们习惯吃西餐吗?你们想回中国吗还是?美国生活怎么样?你们的专业是什么呢?欢迎你们下次来这里!’ I’m sorry to bother you, are you guys Chinese? Where are you from? Are you university students? Are you accustomed to eating American food? Will you return to China? How’s life in America? What are you studying/What’s your majors? See you next time!

Translating from Chinese to English may have worked for my students, but conversing by converting English to Chinese just won’t compute. My students in Xi’an were infamous for doing this, and for the most part, with some level of success. I taught students majoring in Translation and Interpreting, hence liking working from C to E, or E to C. Some students were more successful going back and forth, never getting too comfortable in just one language. Husband and I often use both languages simultaneously, confounding me further as I am not always fully aware of which language we are utilizing, or if we are blending the two. I have days where Chinese is switched on, and English takes a very scary backseat. Of course those tend to be days where I need to use English in a verbal capacity, stumbling through my words. Envision the cat got a hold of my tongue scenario…fun!

In the immersive environment of Xi’an, whether tackling the wet market alone, purchasing a caffeinated treat at Starbucks, interpreting for a non-Chinese speaking colleague, or asking for directions, I exuded confidence. Communicating in Chinese here, besides with ZJ, does not, at least so far, have me beaming with confidence. Still working on how to fake it until I make it when it comes to conversing in Chinese stateside.

The very questions I loathed answering over and over again in Xi’an, in taxis, buses, the Metro, cafes, picking up my jian bing breakfast crepe, strutting my stuff downtown at the Muslim Quarter, Art Street, or in the shadow of the city wall, are now questions peppering my inquisitions. I complained, without any qualms, about being asked these very questions but yet conversations I’ve had in the last year in Chinese always include them, and not much else. The tables have turned in so many ways since repatriating (another day, I’m afraid or this will be the post that never ends. It will go on and on my friends…).

As for general language learning tips, you must create an immersive environment. My MacBook and iPhone are both in Chinese, as are many of the apps, Spotify included. Label items around you with post-it notes, and if like me, the language you are learning is tonal, do not use romanization (pinyin, in the case of Chinese). Read children’s books or graded readers in your target language. Listen to music, watch Youtube videos, movies, and find a language partner. Apps like Duolingo can pair you up with a native speaker and negates the need to find someone in your area who speaks the target language. Using online resources makes it difficult to recuse yourself from learning the language of your dreams! 加油吧!

This post is day four of November’s BlogHer NaBloMo challenge.

Check out day three where I mention the KonMari method of decluttering; in day two’s post I’m haunted by Bear’s Den, and on day one I scrutinized Young’s Year of Fire Dragons. 

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19 thoughts on “Chinese Language Learning in America

  1. Jocelyn Eikenburg says:

    It’s definitely not always easy to keep up your language learning in the US, so I can totally relate. I did a lot of your suggestions, like having my computer in Chinese, watching videos/movies in Chinese and of course speaking it regularly (with the husband). Hope you will 加油 and keep it up! 🙂

    • maklu001 says:

      Not easy at all! Glad to know I’m headed in the right direction…did you pick things up quickly upon returning? I only ask because it’s always been far too easy to converse with ZJ, and I had a harder time with anyone else in China 😦

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