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Things I Learned On A Chinese Course

  1.  I don’t have to be terrified of language learning!  Yaaaaayyy!  This is a Big Deal for me.  Language learning – a lot like learning to swim – is associated with deep-seated childhood traumas and inadequacies.  A not-insignificant portion of my soul has been defined by the certainty that I am a failure in these areas and will never amount to anything.  Learning Chinese in a class – an actual class with actual people – as well as taking a few swimming lessons in order to try and get like those sleek, shark-like weird people in the fast lane with their casual speed and stuff – has been a joyful spiritual revelation, as well as an interesting exercise.  (True fact: first ever swimming lesson I did as an adult, I swum head-first into a wall.  But I did so with beautiful technique.)
  2. Doing classes as a freelancer is tricky.  I’ve taken two months off from lighting, partly because it was killing me, but mostly in order to have an opportunity for the first time in six years, to actually find a time to do an actual course in a subject I want to learn about.  Already however, theatre is gearing up again and when asked ‘how will you pursue this?’ by my teacher, the honest answer is: sporadically.  But with the best intentions.
  3. It is possible to teach yourself a surprising amount of Chinese.  That is… you can learn a lot of words, and you can learn to write a lot of characters, by yourself.  At first it seems ridiculously hard, but once you begin to break down characters into ideas, it gets easier.  好 becomes a woman and a child – 女and 子 – combining in an interesting cultural reflection to a concept of good.  朋 is two moons combined, becoming friends, and the full word for friend, 朋友 has in the second character, two hands clasping.  Learning radicals – the part of a character that makes up a character as a whole – is the way to go.  Then finding the story in that character.  Even a complicated character, say… 警察 – policeman – you can begin to find stories, pulling out mouths that command and stuff to begin to tell yourself how a thing is created.  It can become fun; give it a go!
  4. Trying to write complicated ideas in Chinese without a teacher, is a bit of a nightmare.  For a start, there’s a lot of colloquialisms and sneaky odd bits of language that you’d just never get solo.  马马虎虎 is a good example – horse horse tiger tiger.  Who’d have thought that these words combined could express the notion of ‘so-so… it’s okay kinda…’ as well as myriad of other contextual implications.  Then there’s bits of grammar that are just tricky to nail down – what, for example, is the use of 了?  Is it past tense?  Is it continuing an idea?  Is it a change of state?  Or does it just make a sentence sound sexy?  Even as I write this I STILL DON’T KNOW and I suspect the answer would be… it’s complicated.
    But worse than this – worse than all this – the actual order of sentences makes my mind melt.  The rule that thus far I’ve been trying to cleave to is that whatever happens first in life, that must go first in a sentence.  For example, I wouldn’t say: ‘after I get up I have breakfast then take a shower and go to work on the bus’.  The chronology of that would offend.  ‘I get up, have breakfast, take a shower and by bus go to work’.  But even then there is a logic that seems to be all of its own.  For example, I can’t go to work if there isn’t a place where I can do the work.  ‘I at office work’.  And the lack of tenses mean that it’s not acceptable that I used to enjoy cooking, but my kitchen isn’t really up to the job.  Instead, in the past I enjoyed cooking, but now my kitchen isn’t up to the job.  My teacher swears that these are easy, logical rules that make total sense, but I’m barely scratching the surface of my thin understanding of how the Chinese language obeys its own cunning plans here, and already my mind is melting as I try to re-wire the order of my brain.
  5. Tones are hard.  Chinese has four (and a bit) tones which change the meaning of a word.  Having the space to practice them with people is awesome.  The fact that so many slipped tones seem to change an innocent sentence – 他是我的的爸爸 – into something which implies that your parent is in fact a bodily function – seems like a minefield.  Moreover there are nuances which, unless you were told, probably wouldn’t be obvious as, though again the teacher swears you just have to follow the rules and you’ll be fine, there are pitfalls waiting on certain words to impale you like a butterfly on a pin.
  6. Language is culture.  For example, in Chinese the number four – si 四 – is unlucky, because its pronunciation sounds similar to si 死  – corpse.  Sharing a certain fruit with your partner is bad luck also, because the name of the fruit combined with the verb ‘to share’ makes a sound similar to getting a divorce.  The words for he/she/it though they all have different characters, take the same sound, making it sometimes tricky to work out the spoken gender of a person.  A word for indicating place – 在 – is used for pretty much everything, meaning English nuances of ‘in, at, on’ are a source of bafflement for native Chinese speakers.  And of course language is culture in other ways; for example the character for ‘peace’ 安 is a woman inside a house, and in the language itself the value of family is embedded both in spoken dialogue and in pictographic form.
  7. The verb ‘to be’ probably does have rules for where it’s applied or isn’t, but damned if I can work out what they are.  You do what work?  I be doctor work.  You how old?  I thirty years old.  Who be that?  That be Cat.  She very tall.  Who the hell even knows any more where ‘to be’ 是 fits into a sentence, because I don’t.  I still don’t speak the language of language-learning; I barely understand what nouns are, let alone what an objective sentence is, but given the speed of the course I’m on it’s been something I tend to look up at home… ah Chinese-language wiki… where would we be without you…?

Fundamentally, though, for all its difficulties and joys, taking a week out to try and learn some Chinese this summer has been an awesome thing.  I have this naive hope that learning more Chinese will soften up some part of my brain that will then make learning other languages easier, but who knows?  Whatever happens, however, as a thing which engages my interest in stories, culture, words and the world, it’s an awesome-sauce way to go.