The slow, grinding process of learning Chinese
By Kirsten Bennett(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-06-02 06:34

For me, learning Chinese is not an epiphany, a blinding flash of light where meaning is suddenly revealed. It is a slow, hard, grinding process.

My two children and I began our studies five months before we were to leave to spend a year in China. I would become an English teacher in a private school in Zhuhai in South China's Guangdong Province.

Because Chinese language schools are nonexistent in our small US town, we found a young American man who had spent a couple of years in China to tutor us. We tried to fit him in once a week in our busy lives, tried to study, but without Chinese surrounding us, we made little progress.

Once we arrived, our school provided us with a teacher three times a week. She would fill the whiteboard with incomprehensible writing and we would leave every lesson exhausted, but no wiser. She quit after a month.

Still, we would grind away. We quizzed the English-speaking Chinese people around us, my children tried to communicate with their classmates, and we poured over the frivolous "Learn Chinese in 10 Minutes a Day" books that we had brought with us.

Finally, the school provided us with a real teacher. She presented lessons, told us stories of Chinese people and festivals, and gave us tests. It was exactly what we needed.

Now, I felt, the real learning could begin.

Yet, still, it is a slow, hard, grinding process.

We study and study and achieve some form of "Chinglish," Chinese words in English grammar or mixed English and Chinese in inventive ways, to get our meaning across.

There are days when I am frustrated and ready to give up. I am irrational, thinking why don't these people just learn English? Then I am ashamed of myself. I am in their country. The responsibility is mine.

Some days there is success. I understand what the taxi driver is saying, mostly, and we are able to have a simple conversation about the ages of our sons. I can bargain with the shopkeeper over the price of a shirt. I don't pretend to understand everything he is saying, but I can manage numbers. I can get the price I want.

Yet, I am not completely in a Chinese world, required to speak only Chinese. As an English teacher, I am expected to speak English to the children. I speak English all day. I communicate with my co-workers, English teachers themselves, in English.

But then, my school lets out. I am thrust into the Chinese world, Chinese television, ordering at Chinese restaurants, listening to those four or five incredibly popular Chinese songs playing everywhere, and I want to understand it all.

I want to be able to talk with that smiling old woman and hear her stories. I want to know Chinese thoughts in Chinese language.

I am fascinated. I will not give up.

So I grind away.

(China Daily 06/02/2006 page14)