Monday, July 16, 2007

Character Building

I’m sitting here doing the giant exhale that usually follows my Chinese tutoring sessions, wherein I realize the stress I felt beforehand was entirely justified (it’s tough) but, at the same time, I can’t shake the feeling of: that wasn’t so bad. Learning a language in class - in fits and starts, rather than by “immersion” - seems to be always like this for me. It’s the repeated experience of being completely in over your head but not quite drowning, then the realization after every month or so that you’ve actually made a tiny bit of headway, although you’d never have known it at the time.

Today’s milestone was the text message my tutor sent me before class. I flipped open my phone expecting to find a version of “Sorry, I’m running late,” but instead I found a screenful of Chinese characters. I instinctively forwarded the whole thing to Joey for help, but then I realized: I can read this stuff. Or most of it, anyway. (And yes, my tutor was in fact stuck on the bus.)

Maybe this doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but without a phonetic alphabet, learning to read and write Chinese is pretty much word-by-word memorization. New alphabets, I can learn (three so far), but this is a different process entirely. Every word is new, so I learn one at a time - first what it means, then what its tones are, then how to read it, then how to write it - slowly chipping away at the giant mountain of characters. (Did you ever stop to think how many words there are in one language?)

And every one I can recognize, outside my textbook and flash cards, feels like a flash of secret code I’m suddenly privy to. In Taiwan, I was like a child: we’d pass a sign on the street, and I’d point to the one (easy) character I could recognize and announce it to the world: “Da!” “Bu!” “Ge!” The taxi drivers, not to mention my husband, probably thought I was crazy.

But I get excited, because I never thought I’d be able to read or write any characters at all. Not having grown up with them, I figured I just wasn’t wired that way, so the seemingly meaningless patterns of lines and boxes would slide right out of my head. But somehow, I think it’s starting to stick. Today I read a text message. And later this week, when we send Joey’s grandmother a thank-you note for hosting us in Taiwan, there will be well-wishes in Chinese characters - some of them in my handwriting.


venitha said...

Very proud of you for tackling this, Jenn! Keep it up!

ozlady said...

Bravo and you're braver than I am. The first time I tried nee how ma I got the tones wrong - instead of asking how someone was, I asked how their mother's horse was (who knew?). The whole room laughed at me (tough audience) and I haven't tried much since (except to mutter a few words here and there). Thank you and don't want are about all I can say, and I've been here over ten years. Shame on me - I'm terrible with languages.

Well done to you!

Sherry Li said...

I don't know why I missed this one before; maybe because we were too busy in Taiwan. We want to let you know that we are very proud of your progress in learning Mandarin. Ah-Ma got your card and was very impressed. She asked me to thank you for her. You are doing so great, keep it up!