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Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Week Eight of Blogging with Friends

Twenty-five years ago (and a couple of months) – I can’t believe it has been that long – I started studying Mandarin Chinese. My workplace – a government agency – had advertised two positions based in China and Taiwan respectively, and I had been successful for the Taiwan position. The successful candidates would spend ten months studying Mandarin Chinese full-time, prior to taking up the positions in these countries for a three-year term. The process was rushed, with interviews and assessments occurring in just a couple of weeks, followed almost immediately with the beginning of the custom-made course at Wellington’s Victoria University. My husband and I had some misgivings, but we thought that we could make the position work. We knew we had to make arrangements for work for him overseas, or for how our relationship would cope with a separation.

I had, in fact, always wanted to study Chinese. I had applied to study it at university in my first year, after returning from Thailand. But the professor wouldn’t let me join the class, as – due to the timing of my return from my student exchange – I would be starting two weeks after everyone else, most of whom had already studied the language at high school. The following year, when I wanted to take it up again, he had left the university, and – this being the 1980s in New Zealand – Mandarin was no longer offered. I took up Japanese instead, but pursued it just for one year (despite getting an A).

Several years later, in my first workplace, Chinese and Japanese language courses were offered as part of our career progression. Like my subsequent workplace, we had to apply for the positions and meet language assessments. I sat the Modern Language Aptitude Test (used for the US State Dept), found it surprisingly easy, and scored very highly. But precisely at the time they were to make the appointments, the Trade Department and Foreign Ministry merged, and all appointments went on hold.

So, about seven years later when the opportunity to study Chinese came up for the third time, I applied again. I’d spent six weeks in Taipei the previous year relieving in the position that was available, and found it fascinating. Taipei reminded me a lot of Bangkok, and I liked it and knew I could cope with it. So when I was offered the position, I took it up.

There were four students undertaking this special course, two from our organisation, and two from another (ironically, one I had left just a year or so earlier). We started studying about a month before the university academic year began, and concluded about a month after the year had closed for other students. For five hours a day, five days a week, we studied Mandarin. I’d then go home every afternoon, and study some more. We couldn’t afford to slip behind even for a day, given the pace of the course. We spent our time in a little bubble, four students squashed into a tiny room in a little old house that had been converted to part of the Asian languages department. For five hours a day, we watched the teacher and the whiteboard, both only a metre or two away from our desks. This is the year my eyesight deteriorated, the year I needed to wear glasses full-time.

We had two native Chinese speakers teaching us, with oversight from the Kiwi Head of the Chinese Language Department at the university. His input for an hour once a week was useful, as he was able to explain particular issues from the perspective of an English language speaker. After struggling all week with certain concepts, suddenly he would show us the light.

Our Chinese speakers came from Beijing and Shanghai respectively. We struggled with their accents. One in particular was very pedantic about how we should pronounce words and tones, but was completely oblivious of the fact that she pronounced words differently than she thought she did. So mimicking her was at times fruitless! We learned Chinese with a Beijing accent, which was appropriate I guess because three of the four of us would end up living and working in Beijing. Consequently, I speak Mandarin with a completely different accent to my Malaysian sister-in-law, who speaks with a southern Chinese/southeast Asian accent. I guess it’s the difference between British or Kiwi or American English.

We also learned the simplified Chinese characters – used in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia (promoted by the Chinese government in the 1950s and 60s to improve literacy) – rather than the traditional (and much more complex) characters that were still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Once we became more proficient in reading and writing, I had to start learning not just the simplified characters so I could be involved in the course work, but the traditional characters as well. This required a lot of extra work. You can see the difference here. I also tried to bear in mind the different pronunciations, but I figured they would come once I was immersed in it.

Traditional and corresponding simplified characters

Traditional character on left, and its simplified version on the right. From http://www.hackingchinese.com/media/pictures/simptrad.png

As I mentioned above, I had studied Japanese in my first year at university many years earlier. Although I couldn’t remember any of it, I could remember the feel of writing the characters, making the shapes. This helped. Maybe too the fact that I could speak, read and write Thai meant that I was used to seeing odd symbols and interpreting those as language, or to go back even further, reading symbols as music. They do say that language, music, and maths abilities all go together. It makes a lot of sense to me.

I was diligent, finding the idea of studying as my job to be motivating, and it was easy to be disciplined. It was a very different experience from studying at university the first time! I realised why adult students often get so much more out of their studies than young, fresh-out-of-high-school students.

By the end of the year, we had completed close (but not close enough) to a full undergraduate Bachelor’s degree course in Mandarin Chinese. I was able to read simple articles in Chinese language newspapers, and we could hold conversations in Mandarin, but was still far from fluent. (Two of my colleagues went on for another full year of study in Beijing, before beginning work there.) I found that Mandarin had chased out any other languages I had locked away in the language-centre of my brain. Going to a Thai restaurant was very confusing, as I would start to speak in Thai, but the Mandarin words kept getting in the way.

Unfortunately, at the end of the year, and as a result of a key personnel change in HR, my agency reneged on agreements – sadly unwritten – made earlier in the year, and on which basis I had agreed to spend the year studying. This change in terms of my appointment meant that it was no longer viable – financially or in relationship or career terms – for me to go to Taiwan. It’s a long story! Anyway, they were not prepared to negotiate. I could probably have taken an employment case against them, but I didn’t want to go on that basis. Foolishly, my employers threw away the commitment of a dedicated staff member who had spent a year working very hard to come top of the class. They wasted the salary they had paid me for that year, the salary they paid for the person who replaced me at work, and the fee they’d paid for the course to be delivered. All to allow one arrogant and unprofessional HR manager to save face. So I never went to Taiwan.

I’ve not been to China yet either. Though I did share a brief conversation with a woman in the transit lounge of Shanghai airport on our way to London. She was hawking a Chinese language course. I told her, in Mandarin, that I had already studied it and forgotten it all. She replied that I clearly needed to buy the course. She was right.

I remembered the head of the Chinese department telling us that the first time you learn a language you forget it. But the second time, it sticks. Here’s hoping I get the chance to test that theory.

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As you no doubt know, I enjoy studying languages. But I become frustrated at the different ways language courses (including apps) are designed. I want the most efficient, easiest, and clearest course possible. And I want different learning styles and situations represented. Yes, I am demanding.

When I was living in Thailand as a diplomat, the “total immersion” style of language learning was in vogue. After all, the courses would advertise, this is how children learn, and they are the most efficient learners of language of us all. This is true. But the point is that we are not children anymore. Sure, teach a child language by immersion, that’s brilliant. And sure, speak as much as possible in the language to get our ears used to it, and likewise, ask someone in a class to speak as much of the language as possible. (I had a French teacher at high school who resisted speaking French with us. It didn’t help the learning!) But there are times when an adult needs to understand something to be able to accept it and use it, in a way that a child does not. This understanding doesn’t come from immersion. Likewise, there are times when only a teacher who speaks your native language can explain something in context, in the way you need to be able to understand.

I also like to know how something is pronounced, and not just by hearing it on an app. That helps, sure, but our ears deceive us, and a “mi” can sound like “ni” or vice versa. And sometimes, even our teachers don’t hear the different ways they pronounce something. I once had a teacher who would say “ng” for “n.” But when we copied her, she would get frustrated that we were saying it wrong! So I like to see it written down. Whether that is through a phonetic alphabet like pinyin for Chinese, or through learning a syllabic alphabet, like hiragana or katakana, in Japanese. I also like to know the mechanics of pronouncing different sounds in different languages, such as where to put my tongue in my mouth. This helped me with the “r” in French, and also in Spanish, when I actually – and with a lot of practice – managed to roll my Rs. And I used to say “wabbit” when I was little, so my Rs have always been a little tricky.

Subject matter is important too. So many courses are aimed at students at school, and teach words like dictionary, class, teacher, pen, or mother, father, parents, sister etc. That’s really not helpful for my purposes, which have almost always been for business or travel. And I find it frustrating.

A lot of my language learning is self-taught. I’ve had a brilliant Teach Yourself German book, which I wrote about here. The podcasts from Synergy Spanish quickly gave me a great foundation in beginners’ conversational Spanish. I now try to apply the basics of that to any other (European) language I learn. I’ve had one brilliant language teacher, a young Spanish woman who gave me classes for six weeks before going to Spain. I had self-studied for a year before then and had developed a decent vocabulary, but she quickly clarified some grammatical issues for me and made me feel so much more comfortable in the language. Unfortunately, around the time I was in Spain, she left NZ. So on my return I could not continue working with her, and my Spanish fell silent.

I’m currently using Duolingo. What I like about it is hearing the native speakers, and adapting to that. I’m thrilled when I can hear a sentence and immediately understand it. It’s fun speaking the language again too. But I’m frustrated with certain changes in their use of what-I –call-prepositions in their language. They work on teaching through patterns, but there’s no facility for explanations to explain why they are sometimes different. I need and want that. So I’m also throwing myself into my old textbooks (yes, I kept them!) to see if I can solve the mystery.

I think though, that I am most frustrated at the fact that I studied this language for a year back in university, and yet here I am now doing a cursory crash course. I know I won’t get the facility I had at the end of that year, able to read and write and pass an oral exam, in the next couple of weeks, if I develop any facility at all in the language! That’s so disappointing. And I know too that just as I might start feeling it is a little more familiar, I’ll have left the country (about the time you read this), unlikely to ever return and use the language again. And I will delete the app from my phone, and most probably say sayonara to my textbooks forever. I find that almost unbearably sad.

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I am ashamed to say that of our country’s three official languages, I only speak English (or New Zild, as we jokingly call our version of it); I don’t speak sign language, and I don’t speak Maori. However, it’s pretty impossible to live in New Zealand and not understand certain Maori words, and every year, I had a few more, particularly around Maori Language Week, which finished recently.

Many Maori words have been used in New Zealand English for decades, but increasingly we use more and more Maori words for concepts, place names and flora and fauna.

Older New Zealanders, or those Kiwis who have spent years out of the country, find themselves sounding as if they still live in the 1970s, with incorrect (almost disrespectful) pronunciation, and are unable to understand concepts and terms that are firmly established in our vernacular. As a really simple example, they can’t understand our now correct pronunciation of many place names, or our national anthem which is now routinely sung in both languages.  (To keep up with the times, I learnt the Maori words some years ago during another Maori Language Week).

My favourite word out of this year’s Maori Language week was hōhā (to annoy or frustrate), after I heard someone on the radio casually mention that he had been “hoha-ing” his boss.

As I was writing this, I heard a radio announcer speak in Fijian, noting that it was Fijian Language Week – help, I can’t keep up!

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