While the CNY holiday coming to an end here in China we are about to enter February, a month that will come with new challenges and undertakings. For me, it means continuing my studies of Mandarin by taking on level 5 (there's a total of 8 levels) as well as a HSK course. Or, well, at least that is my ambitious plan, but let's see how I get on with it -and especially with that HSK course. (It's way easier to sound ambitious than to actually be it, but it's worth a try, right?!)
I've already bought the course books for level 5 and scared myself by opening them: We are talking academic texts, as well chapters where all the new words are explained in Chinese only (before it was the texts and the grammar, now it is the grammar, the texts AND the new words...Thank lord I have my little dictionary is all I can say).
I have no idea how many people I will be studying with this semester, but I am guessing that the majority of my classmates will be Japanese or Korean. Even though it sort of sucks being "the black sheep" of my class (I have been that since level 2 when I started ending up in classes where all my fellow classmates were from Asia and could read and write way better than me) it is also sort of inspiring. Being surrounded by classmates that are all smart and bright sort of pushes me to try a bit harder so that I don't make a total fool of myself (although that has happened too, at various times).
I was talking to a friend from Europe the other day who is about to take on Mandarin Level 2. Even though she has been taking private lessons for some months she is still all modest about skills and told me she doesn't feel comfortable to call for the waiter at restaurants yet (In China, you simply call 'Fu wu yuan!' in a loud voice when you want to order something. You don't have to YELL it although a lot of people do) and it was so funny to listen to her, as it was a deja-vu experience of how I was about 1.5 years ago.
I guess a lot of people go through the same things when learning Chinese. In the very beginning, you are like a mushroom, absorbing everything you learn as it will make your life in China so much easier when you can speak a a bit of Chinese. Also, the more you learn the more excited you get about what you know and you want to try and speak to everybody all the time. Then, you suddenly get all modest about your skills (as you realize, when you speak to Chinese people, that you actually don't know or understand that much), and frustrated as you feel as if you are getting nowhere even though you're studying and studying... But then, slooooowly, you improvements are starting to show and you start to feel more comfortable using your language skills. And then, you hit a point where you start having 'good days' and 'bad days' where you go from being close to fluent when discussing certain topics (on good days) to not being able to pronounce the most simple things (on bad days) or not even being able to ask for directions (on REALLY bad days!). I think that's where I am now (even though I haven't had a REALLY bad day for a while), and I desperately hope for my skills to continue to improve, so that I can stop feeling frustrated, and simply enjoy speaking the language.
Still, I wonder how long it is going to take for me until I hit that point. I know there is a total of 8 levels of Mandarin that you can study (one level = one semester, although I don't know how keen I am to spend another 2 years at the university -is it necessary? What's your opinion, fluent Chinese speakers?) and it is different from person to person how long you have to study at a university and how much you can continue learning by working in China.
I guess there is no other way to find out but to keep trying. In all sorts of ways.