Community Compass: The tears, joy and responsibility of learning Chinese
FROM CACOPHONY TO BEAUTY: After studying for several years, someone might say: ‘You can communicate in Chinese.’ But that is by far not the end of the road
By David Pendery
Tuesday, Jan 06, 2009, Page 4
Like most foreigners who live in Taipei, I have spent much time studying Chinese. However, I never counted myself among those who come here to study the language full time. I arrived in Taipei for different personal and professional reasons, and did not think about studying Chinese until I had been here a few months.
I then recognized the practical necessity, with the baffling cacophony of Chinese buzzing around me forcing me to acknowledge that I needed to better understand the language; and also for cultural reasons, with the growing desire to learn more about the new society I found myself in. I entered my first Chinese class in fall 2000. Little did I know I had embarked on an endeavor that would change my life.
I am of two minds about my Chinese skills. On the one hand, I often feel discouraged, far less than fluent, hardly even conversational. During my learning process, there have been the hurts of sharp rebukes when I mispronounced a word, using the second instead of the third tone. Or the frustration of navigating through the seemingly endless repetition and re-use of sounds in Chinese: 是，事，十；付，父，赴；吉，即，急. During my first frustrating years of study there were times when I asked myself: How do they even understand each other?
On the other hand, I have experienced those joys that make one feel that one is crossing the Rubicon of second language acquisition. There was the time in Paris, eating at a Chinese restaurant, when I asked the waitress: 小姐，請給我一碗飯? There was the time I briefly conversed with a Chinese-speaking neighbor during a visit to my home town, as my old friend gaped in amazement. And then there was perhaps my high point, when at a recent party a Taiwanese man who I have known since I moved here observed me speaking Chinese with another friend, and announced: “David, I admit it. You can communicate in Chinese.”
My Chinese study can be divided into distinct phases. In the first phase, I gingerly began, studying as regularly as I could given that I had a full-time job. My problem during this period was that I spent most of my time silently learning new vocabulary and practicing writing Chinese characters, rather than actually speaking the language. My speaking ability stalled because of this method. This went on for about three years, and my progress was halting, but not unnoticeable.
I then took a big step and enrolled in a summer course at National Taiwan Normal University. This propelled me forward — but only for a short time, for immediately after this I was consumed by a number of other events in my personal life and had to stop studying altogether.
This went on for three years. During this time I continued to observe, learn and practice the language, but I was not studying diligently — the sine qua non of serious language learning. Finally, after that third year, I returned to study on my own, for an hour or two every morning. But once again I focused on vocabulary and writing, which as noted is not a truly effective approach.
People began to notice that I was speaking more, but I still felt that I struggled. At the end of this year, I yet again had to put away my Chinese studies to focus on a doctoral program I had entered — though I continued with my endless observations, questions and on-again-off-again conversation with friends and family.
This brings me to the present, and my aim now is to, yet again, return to serious study this year — with those sweet words of my friend at the party inspiring me.
After all I have been through I am truly an old hand at Chinese study. It might be something of a love/hate relationship, but I soldier on. Important, no doubt, is my desire to speak Chinese better in order to interact more comprehensively with Taiwanese people. There is even more at work, however, and Chinese has taken on yet more important roles in my life. For I have found that as I have tunneled deeper into the complexities of this puzzling, demanding, nettlesome language, it has impacted me in profound emotional, intellectual and philosophical ways.
Emotionally, the challenge of studying Chinese has had an impact on my self-esteem and conditioned my interaction with everyone I know. As noted, much of the time I have been a part-time student of the language, while always striving for full-time results. I have shed not a few tears because of these sometimes-irrational expectations. As well, as I have tried to practice Chinese with my friends and family members, something like a conflict has emerged, pitting Chinese and English (we almost always use a combination), and I have had the disconcerting feeling of both loving my native language and resenting it for intruding into and limiting my Chinese expression.
Intellectually, it is perhaps obvious how studying Chinese impacts a person. The fantastic intricacy and enthralling etymologies, orthography and semantics of the characters, the internal diversity of the language, its long history and role in Chinese culture and the straightforward difficulty of trying to cage this dragon could provide a lifetime of intellectual challenge and stimulation, as well as a wonderful world of creative possibility and apperceptive pith.
Philosophically, Chinese has introduced to me a new world of communicative possibility, which contrasts intriguingly with my native tongue. The very difference of Chinese for Westerners sets up a matrix in which we find ourselves correlating, comparing and counterpoising the two languages and world views — one linear, lettered and Latinate-but-astonishingly-worldly; the other orthogonal, calligraphic and so-Chinese/Asian. In spite of what sometimes feels like a yawning gulf separating the two languages, I feel that, as they say of the world’s religions, we are all treading paths leading up a mountain, detached and remote from one another as we work our ways up the foothills and middle altitudes, but coming together with the same goals and consequences as we reach the peak.
Studying Chinese has changed my life, and in spite of a few heartaches along the way, it has changed me for the better. I could hardly recommend it more highly to my friends and family — if my recommendation is accompanied by a few warnings and provisos.
As for we foreigners studying Chinese in Taiwan, we find ourselves in deep, for although we have freighted ourselves with a heavy load, we in turn know there is something more at work, a significance that ripples through the personal, the national, to the universal. At the personal level, studying Chinese offers us an amazing challenge, with pragmatic rewards. We also find that studying the language takes us ever deeper into a new culture, people and nation — one that contrasts remarkably with our own homes and mother tongues.
And finally, studying this foreign language, any foreign language ultimately becomes an exceptional responsibility, as we slowly contribute to a greater comity, a greater apprehension, a greater existence for us all.
In conclusion, the words of Aldous Huxley seem apt:
The choice is always ours. Then, let me choose
The longest art, the hard Promethean way
Cherishingly to tend and feed and fan
That inward fire, whose small precarious flame,
Kindled or quenched creates
The noble and ignoble men we are,
The worlds we live in and the very fates,
Our bright or muddy star.