Archive for July 5th, 2010

Re-Acquiring Chinese

Monday, July 5th, 2010

One of my Chinese professors once told me that learning any language is a graduating series of failures, coming at higher and higher levels. When you start a language, you fail at the simplest things. Then you can pass the salt and find the toilet, but you can’t determine who’s who in your friend’s family (a fairly complicated process in Chinese). And so on …

Re-acquiring the language after a twenty year hiatus was like this, only at warp speed. I’d listened to elementary CD’s at home in Southern California, which all seemed clear as a bell. But when I stepped in my first taxi on the first day in Shanghai and tried to tell the driver to turn left or right, my mouth opened and nothing came out.

It was like this for the first three or four days. The very simplest of statements came only with great difficulty. I moved into a youth hostel in Suzhou where very few people spoke English (the clientele were mostly Chinese backpackers). And there were days in that hostel when I would wake up in the morning, dreading going out and challenging my lack of language again. Several times, I thought I’d imagined ever speaking Chinese in the past. It was one of those ways the brain tricks you into thinking that you are someone special or different. No, I’d never done it.

Then, on Wednesday, after living in the hostel for three days, I negotiated changing my room to a nicer one. The whole negotiation and moving was done entirely in the language. One of the assistants in the hostel looked at me and said, “You speak Chinese now?” It was my first serious breakthrough. I was in heaven.

Every day after that had a breakthrough of one kind or another, very much like learning a language from scratch, but much, much faster. Phrases would come to my mouth, unbidden but remembered. The long phrase for percentage in Chinese was one. Thursday, I had a 20 minute conversation about my family with two cleaning ladies at the hostel. I’d been back in China for six days then.

The re-learning was not a smooth ride. While I gained confidence, there would always be somewhere to fall down. And once a conversation goes poorly, it becomes difficult to re-start it and convince your partner that, yes, you do understand what they are saying.

My professional conference started on Monday, June 28. I’d been in-country for ten days and, while not at all fluent, I was able to make myself understood and listen to other people. My level was still one where the language was a basic and blunt tool, not a thing of joy.

On my days back in Shanghai, before coming back to the US, I found myself again able to make simple jokes. Taxis had long ceased to be a problem. I could work my way around most forgotten or mis-understood words. I’d found part of my tongue, but not all of it. I can now remember being able to play word games twenty years ago, and know that those memories are genuine. And if I were to remain in-country for some time, I’d certainly re-acquire the ability.

But the last two days in Shanghai before boarding the plane were really very comfortable for me. My language was back, and I could use it.