I always wanted to learn Chinese. It’s such an interesting language, and the characters are so beautiful. When I was a teenager, I’d go to the new Chinese restaurant in town and ask the owner to teach me Chinese words and characters. He always obliged. I picked up all sorts of books. I studied and studied. And unlike any other language I had ever attempted to learn, I could never remember a single bit of it. I could never keep the characters straight. I could never get the tones right. I could never retain enough in my memory to produce a single meaningful phrase. Worst of all, I never really had anyone to use the language with. Eventually I let go of that dream.
Flash forward to 2016 and I’m surrounded by Chinese. There are native speakers in my advisory group, in my dorm, and in my classes. Needless to say, I’m kicking myself for never having picked up the language. I did try at first. I had a new dream: that at a certain point in my career at Webb I’d have enough skill in the language to talk to some of these students and their parents. But that’s a goal without a time limit, so it was always on the backburner.
Skip ahead one more year and, surprise, I’m going to China in six weeks! The deadline is all too real now. This is it. I just can’t fly halfway around the world and speak English the whole time. I’ve never settled for visiting another country as a helpless monoglot.
The environment and the time frame have changed, but the problems are still the same. My motivation to learn isn’t taking me as far as I need it to, and at this point, all I can think about is how I so wish I could spend the next six weeks in an intensive CI-based Chinese workshop. I’m completely rekindling my appreciation for things like TPR and TPRS because I so wish I could share the benefits that my own students experience in their CI-based French classes. I need to be able to communicate in Chinese, and I need that to happen right now.
I’m starting to make some progress, but it’s only because I’m forcibly immersing myself at every opportunity. That process hasn’t been overly fruitful. For the first few weeks, my Chinese was so bad that most of the natives thought I was speaking to them in French. Let that sink it. Friends, that’s really, really bad! Next I moved on to the stage where they knew I was speaking Chinese, but I’d always mess one bit up so bad they couldn’t understand anything I was saying. It took me weeks to get to the point where I could say a short sentence like 我会去中国 “I’m going to go to China” and be understood.
My general experience with CI and my recent trip to France have helped me figure out what really matters. I’m focused on high-frequency vocabulary. But I still have to be able to put this stuff together.
One of my techniques has been mnemonic devices, which I always use to remember quirky bits of a new language. The word for waitress, 服务员, sounds a bit like “Fool, what do you want?” but the words are all slurred together because you’re in a hole-in-the-wall bar and the waitress is drinking more than she’s serving. The word for hope, 希望, sounds like “she want”, because you hope you got your wife what she wants. The word for can, 能, sounds a bit like “nun” and looks like a muscular nun showing off her guns because she can do anything she wants.
The mnemonics have helped a lot, but it’s so slow: conjure up the mnemonic, adjust it to correct pronunciation, and then actually produce it with the correct pronunciation. This isn’t the rate of speech that’s going to work in native-speaker environments.
I’ve always appreciated CI from the teacher perspective. I know it’s the best method for helping my students learn and retain the language at a quick pace. Now, however, I’m appreciating CI from the learner’s perspective. If I were immersed in CI, rather than staring at phrase lists and reciting ridiculous mnemonics, I’d be speaking confidently and comprehensibly. The process would happen rather quickly. I could easily make it to China with enough language under my belt to handle simple tourist situations.
Unfortunately, I won’t be getting any Chinese CI for now. There’s simply no time or opportunity at the moment. I’m not giving up, but I have no idea what’s going to happen when I step foot in Beijing. Stay tuned for that in my next post!