No Cunning Linguist, I

If I ever needed proof that I’m getting older, my Mandarin class is providing lots of evidence.

I’m about halfway through my first course of Mandarin lessons and it does not bode well. I can’t seem to get anything much to stick. Two seconds after we’ve practiced a phrase, it’s gone again. And it’s making me feel dumber by the lesson.

My teacher is pityingly patient but I sense that even she is getting towards the end of her tether. But at least we hear, “NO! Horrible European pronunciation!! Listen again! Or Chinese person hear you and know immediately you foreigner!”, somewhat less frequently.

I’ve never been anywhere close to being called a polyglot and I knew going into this that Mandarin is tough to learn because of the infamous “tones”  – get one wrong and you’ll insult someone’s mother when you’re just trying to ask about the weather.

What has amazed me though is the number of expats in my class who have lived in China for years, literally years, without learning any of the language.

In some cases it is because they work long hours in an English language environment; others have Chinese spouses who take care of all their pesky language needs; others remain within the expat bubble, relying on their more linguistically advanced friends to get by.

I’m taking classes at a school that was recommended by a lot of different people and I’m generally very happy with the quality of teaching but why, for example, can I say “the restaurant is near the Forbidden City”, and “yesterday I ate dumplings”, but not, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Mandarin and if I do try to use the few words I know, I am likely to slaughter your ancient , glorious language (which has been referred to as the Italian of the East by the way) and confuse you greatly”?

2 responses

  1. Hello RW,

    Just read your blogs .. and although I think I sympathize with you, I’m also a bit jealous that you have this fantastic opportunity you may never have again. Consider the demographics in N. America where the boomers are about to head into retirement and the economy here will never be the same again. That means jobs and opportunities are quickly vanishing never to be seen again. China on the other hand still has amazing opportunities over the next 20 years until they face a massive retirement squeeze themselves.

    So … try to make the best of it. I am married to a Cantonese Chinese speaking woman and I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never be able to learn Cantonese unless I am living in Hong Kong.

    Wishing I was in Beijing but stuck in the oil sands.

    • Yes, you are absolutely right. I guess the difficulty is that I KNOW this is an amazing adventure, and I do try to be all positive about it but sometimes culture-shock happens and that’s the reality. Each week is getting a bit easier 😀

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