Language: An American’s Experience

We interrupt your regularly scheduled, albeit a month or more late, travel posts for this important news update: I have to take a test tomorrow! A language test…

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I love languages, I think they are fascinating which is why I was particularly eager to start learning Mandarin/Chinese at the beginning of our journey to the other side of the world. Despite being known in the West as one of the more difficult languages to learn, I was not deterred. I thought it would be the key to enhancing my experience in China. At this point I am nowhere near fluent, but I am highly functional in most situations. I find I get the best practice when I encounter people who simply cannot speak English which is why the immersion experience really is the best. Taxi drivers, massage therapists, my fabric market friends, street vendors in non-foreign touristy areas, and many restaurant/shop workers speak minimal to no English here in China. Sure, this experience has made for some hilarious and embarrassing stories for both David and me, but the general reaction we get from almost every Chinese person when we try to speak Mandarin is one of excitement and often times relief. You can visibly see peoples faces change between when we approach and when we start butchering speaking Chinese. They visibly relax once they realize they can communicate with us, albeit at a preschool level. This does not always hold true because China has countless regional dialects, and an estimated 1/3 of the country still does not speak the national language: Mandarin (Putōnghuà 普通话). This means sometimes people will use different words to mean the same thing, which of course just adds to the confusion when trying to communicate in a new language.

Since I have put in so much time and energy learning Mandarin, I decided it was worth sitting for the language exam: the HSK (HànYu ShuiPíng KaoShì/汉语水平考试/Chinese Language Level Exam). At this point I have taken the HSK II exam as a practice exercise for level III to figure out where the exam building was located and get a feel for how the test would be run. There are a total of VI levels to this exam, and they cover listening, reading, and writing at the higher levels. The level II exam was quite simple, and I left feeling as though I got almost every question correct. At level 2 they still use pinyin along with characters for the reading section which makes things much more straightforward. Sure enough, 100%. Ok, even I did not think I got that many questions correct…Version 2Starting with level III you are required to know 600+ characters as the entire exam is written in Chinese characters. For reference, it is estimated that the average college graduate in China can recognize 4,000 characters. You even have to write short sentences and fill in the blank with characters from memory. With all the travel we have done in the first part of 2017, my studying has suffered a big hit, but I am optimistic I can still scrape by with a passing 180/300 during tomorrow’s exam…

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Practice Exam: “Match the two sentences that go together, but might not necessarily be next to each other in a conversation…”
Tones in spoken Chinese are an entirely different beast, but I have found the pimsleur audio tapes highly effective at helping me improve those as well (repetition, repetition, repetition…). All this to say, I have spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to learn this language because I have the ability to use, practice, and improve while I am in China. It seemed the thing to do.

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Not quite ready for our close up…
I had an interesting interaction this past fall in one of the classical gardens that I have been wanting to share because it surprised me and made me think about the implications of what was actually being communicated. I was in Shanghai with my husband and a friend who was visiting from the states and we met a nice French trio who offered to take our photo in exchange for taking theirs. We chatted briefly about the fact that two of us live here and they were just visiting (this exchange was all in English mind you as none of us Americans knew any French), and before they left one of the women casually inquired if we spoke any languages other than English. We mentioned David and I could speak Chinese as we lived here currently, never mind the 12 years I spent studying Spanish in grade school. David joked that my Chinese was better because I studied more. At this point one of the women asked to shake my hand because in her experience Americans could only speak English and never deigned to learn another language because they thought it beneath them. She didn’t use those words. I added my own subtext. I am sure she said something more along the lines of “I am so glad you can speak more than one language, it is so uncommon to meet an American who speaks a language other than English,” but that does not change the sentiment. This was still a backhanded compliment if I’d ever heard one. Then I started thinking: she’s not wrong, plenty of Americans can only speak English. Why is that? It did not take me long to come to the following two conclusions:

  1. Today, in order to be successful in a global business environment, it is helps to be able to speak English. Whether it is because at one point England tried to colonize the better part of the world or because Western capitalism is the order of the day I am not entirely sure. It is, however, the lowest common denominator of languages based on my fairly extensive travel experience.
  2. Since foreign speakers are eager to practice their English, and America is not surrounded by a multitude of foreign language speaking countries, it is not as easy for us to practice a foreign language meaningfully or to have any long-term retention. If you don’t use it you lose it.

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English is everywhere…
As an example: I studied Spanish for 12 years. I was quite fluent at the time, but I have still never been to a Spanish speaking country! The closest I came was visiting Puerto Rico, and everyone I met insisted on speaking English at me so I gave up. After 12 years of study and almost zero practical use was it any wonder I did not try learning other languages in my spare time? When almost all foreign countries I have visited to date use both their local language and English to communicate written and verbal instructions, is it worth spending a considerable amount of time to learn a new language for a week long trip? Many will argue learning the local language is the only way to properly connect with the people in other countries, but in a world with finite time and competing priorities, I am not surprised learning a new language is not on the top of many peoples list.

I have been fortunate to live in China for almost two years at this point, so the decision to learn Mandarin was easy for me. Speaking the local language significantly enhanced my experience here, and the opportunity to practice consistently is what will help with better retention in the future (I hope). Right now I have high hopes I will continue to study Mandarin when we go home in June, but I also know it would be very easy to slip back into English and never look back…

Update: I have officially passed level 3. Now onto level 4 when I return to the USA…?

9 thoughts on “Language: An American’s Experience

  1. I am so proud of you giving the extra effort ….. I am not sure I could even do it. Can;t wait
    to see you in June. Have a wonderful month of May. and hurry home.. 🙂

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  2. As English is more or less a universal language, it seems easier and more efficient to speak that in foreign countries than to take the time to learn multiple languages that I might only use for a week each. And if I am in a country with multiple dialects what are the odds I would even have learned the one I would need. My 2 years of high school Spanish did not fully prepare me for the “Tex-Mex” Spanish spoken by my students as a first year teacher in Dallas. So, the fact that Americans don’t learn foreign languages isn’t necessarily because they feel it’s beneath them. It may have more to do with it’s just not that easy to pick the one you think you may get need some day and then have the opportunity to be proficient at it.

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    1. That’s kind of my point, if you don’t have an opportunity to use it consistently it doesn’t really do you as much good and makes all the effort needed to be “competent” seem overwhelming. The fact that English has been picked up by so many countries in the tourism realm adds to this. Europeans may have better opportunities to learn and practice more languages because of their proximity to other countries.

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  3. Our granddaughter is currently in a Chinese immersion program and as a second grader, she is completing her third year of Mandarin. I am always amazed when people ask why her parents choose to put her in the Chinese immersion program.

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    1. I heard Chinese is becoming more popular these days in the US, that’s great! By number of people who speak it I’m sure Chinese has to be one of the most common languages in the world…I’m sure someone has done a study on this, I’ll have to look it up, haha.

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  4. When I was in Shanghai, everyone just speaks English to foreigners (without even figuring out if they are good at English). Then I travelled to Germany one day, where people by default speak German to me, unless I indicated that I prefer English. Not trying to make a big fuss here, but it triggered me thinking – what’s wrong of speaking my native language in my country? It respects people like you who put effort in picking up local culture, as well as respects the local language itself.

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    1. In my experience we take our best guess as to what language people speak based on appearance and frequency of use. English is a pretty common second language for many countries so maybe it’s a “safer” guess for foreigners (attempted colonization of the world and all). I accidentally started chatting with a Chinese American man in Shanghai in Chinese. Turned out he doesn’t know Mandarin. We figured that one out pretty quick though. Oops!

      As you say, I always think it’s more fun to have someone use native language and I’ll start mining and using English words if I get really stuck. My charades skills have improved a lot here…haha.

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