Thursday, March 31, 2011

The language roller coaster

Back to school? No thanks!

Yesterday I had a bit of a bad day with everything going wrong… And when there are many bumps on the road you know what it’s like: You start creating yourself invisible bumps. At least is your name starts with a J and ends with ONNA.

So, yesterday I started thinking that on top of everything else that went downhill, my Chinese had gotten all bad, as I now don’t study the language on a regular basis anymore. I speak Chinese with my Chinese co-workers on a daily basis (my closest colleague is Chinese), and I have a lot of meetings and phone calls in Chinese. But from time to time I forget words/vocabulary that I used to know, and that frustrates me. Some days it pops back into my head, but I cannot get around the scary thought of: “think if I just get worse and worse and suddenly forget everything that I worked so hard to learn!” I know it’s a kind of ridiculous thought, but I think you know what I mean.

So, yesterday, in between bad thing 1 and bad thing 2, I decided to bite the bullet and asked my colleague what she thought of my language skills:

-I think everything, your writing, reading and speaking skills, are better today compared to when we first met (about 1 year ago), she said, which made me do 10 joyful jumping jacks at the spot (I sincerely hope she wasn’t just being nice).

I walked off feeling happy, until I received a phone call in Chinese. I was chatting on for a while until the guy I was talking to suddenly changed the topic into something I couldn’t understand. I made a guess, and it was wrong… and as a result… he switched to English.

I felt mortified. Even though the topic was a bit out of my league (environmental science) I couldn’t get over the fact that I couldn’t keep up the conversation in Chinese and that he felt he had to change to English.

…and this is how I go on these days. I’m on a high for a while, just to drop into a low as soon as I hit an unfamiliar language spot. I have tried to find time to study (I took lessons for a while last fall, but had to stop during the end of the Expo as I simply couldn’t find the time), and since then I haven’t really managed to fit it into my schedule. I prioritize health over pretty much everything else, because I know that I don’t feel good if I don’t do my workouts. But now I’m going to start with weekend language lessons instead of weekday lessons, as maybe it will become easier to keep the focus when you haven’t just spent 8 hours in front on the computer in the office.

I’ve been considering getting a language partner, but then I speak so much Chinese during the days that it almost feels unnecessary. Or… maybe not? Maybe I am stuck in the same, daily vocab with my workmates, and a language partner could challenge me in a different way? Then I think that my spoken Chinese is probably much better than my writing/reading skills, so I should probably practice that… which is something I cannot do via a language partner, but something I can do by simply picking up a newspaper on a more regular basis/keeping a diary in Chinese. Sounds easy, right? And trust me, I’ve tried. But for some reasons it’s very hard to motivate myself when there is no teacher pushing me.

It’s funny, with languages, because some days (or not days, it’s more like some weeks, as it goes in phases) I feel that I’m on top of everything: that I get on really well in terms of communicating with Chinese people, and that I have no big problems neither in my professional nor my private life over here. Then suddenly comes that low when my tones goes wrong (and I can hear it as I speak), I cannot find the words, and I find myself staring at the same character, wondering why I suddenly don’t remember it, because some days ago I recognized it.

I wonder if I will ever come to a point where I feel confident and comfortable with Chinese on an every day basis and not worry so much. Probably not.


Unknown said...

Jonna, I feel exactly the same sometimes, not to Chinese but English. When I look back at the things that I wrote a few years ago, I am amazing at the vocabulary that i used to know. same with my English speaking skills, it used to be better when I was a checkout chick, now I am working in a office environment, the conversation i have with co-workers would be daily pleasantry, or work related conversation. I found my English went downhill from there. Listening is getting better as I watch lots of TV shows and movies. But speaking, pronunciation is terrible. I feel your pain and kind of frustrated at my inability to improve my English the way i want it to be.
i guess we will only be as good as we try. maybe read more, watch more TV will help?

Unknown said...

I can relate to this. =/


Anonymous said...

I love the challenge of learning Mandarin but despise the frustrations. Because it is such a challenge it will be that much more rewarding when I hit the fluency levels that I am striving for. Here is an excellent piece by David Moser on why it is such a tough language:

I hear ya though. I remember back in my early days of learning Mandarin and one of the first things you go through are the 4 tones... and I'm thinking 'ok, that shouldn't be too tough' and 'why do they keep hammering this point home, ok 4 tones, big deal'. When I listen to language CDs and they introduce new words I feel an embarrassing sense of victory when I guess the tones right and crushing defeat that drives me to some defeatist places in my brain when I don't. 1 and 3 are pretty cake, but I still struggle with 2 and 4. Which is odd because they seem like total opposites so it should be easy. Do you have any tips for distinguishing those two?

Anonymous said...

maybe it's just alzheimers , should you see a doctor?