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My Uphill Battle with Learning Chinese-Mandarin

For those who keep up with my blog, I’m sure you’ve seen many references to me learning Mandarin, or Putonghua for those who prefer it being referred to as that. A little background on my “language” abilities. I have grown up in a household of speaking Cantonese, with only English “taught” to me at home, but it was expected I speak Cantonese at home. I remember when I went through that phase of ‘just’ wanting to speak English, my parents told me clearly that if I’m unable to ask for something in Cantonese, it was not happening – this included if I asked for something to eat. I’m sure in today’s standard, that would be considered child-abuse, but my parents idea was if you can’t ask for it in Cantonese, you aren’t getting it! I’m quite glad I was forced to learn Cantonese because it is so damn useful knowing a different language, especially your ‘own’ language.

I was enrolled in “Chinese school” (you’ll understand why I quote that later) for about 6 years. I met a lot of friends there and we were all native Chinese, with those varying from general communication vocabulary to those who could barely say ‘good morning’ to their parents in the morning. Nevertheless, through those 6 years, I cannot say I learn a great deal. Most of my learning just simply came from using it at home and watching Chinese movies. Although in class we were taught to read, write, speak and understand Chinese (Cantonese dialect), during recess or anytime the students communicated with each other, it was all in English. The class was much more of a place for you to “drop off your kids for a few hours” rather than true, hardcore learning. Then again, these classes combined kids from 5 to 15, making an “appropriate teaching level” incredibly hard, especially when you have those who were much more fluent such as I compared to those of my friends who could barely say their own names in Cantonese. I remember I used to loathe my parents for forcing me to learn a language that I would ‘not be practical’ – but let’s face it.. look around the world, Chinese (particularly Mandarin) is working its way up to being one of world’s “international business language.” I’ve seen many Caucasian people taking up an interest in learning Mandarin, mostly because it can move them quickly up the ladder and especially if you plan on doing business with China. Although when I return to Hong Kong I have problems navigating or ordering at places that have menus strictly in Chinese, at the very least I can speak and listen well enough to hold my own.

So before I started learning Mandarin, I had an excellent grasp of spoken/listening to Cantonese, very minor written/reading comprehension of Chinese characters and almost completely fluent in written/reading/spoken/listening of English. Although I had always known that knowing more languages never hurts, languages are not a particularly easy thing to learn… or at least not for me. Also, females seem to be a lot more adept at picking up languages than guys due to biological factors. I remember that I was one of the top 3 students in my grade during high school in French. My French teacher had highly encouraged me to continuing my pursuit of French due to “natural ability” for it. The truth is I didn’t have any natural ability in French, I simply studied very hard for my class, with many hours dedicated when I got home to learning enough to do well on my tests. In the end, I stopped taking French after my mandatory credit year because I just didn’t feel like it was useful in my future career field (in computers). Secondly, learning French was very hard for me, so as much as my teacher thought I had a knack for it, I really didn’t.

The reason I never took up Mandarin before was because I saw it as a language of little use to me. To me, speaking Cantonese was already enough, along with the most useful language in Canada, English. My cousin had always said I should definitely pick up Mandarin so I can hit on all those cute Taiwanese chicks. I’ve never found a Taiwanese girl I’ve really been interested in, so I never felt that desire to learn it. Furthermore, I have this unfortunate (and I’m not claiming it to be correct) equation of Mandarin and China-Mainlander girls who I did not have the most positive feelings about. Over time as I was deciding to pick up Mandarin so that communication would be easier between bebe and I and furthermore, hoping to bridge that gap of communication between her family and friends with me, it took a lot of effort for me to bring myself to learning a language which I have no grasp of at all. You may think, “Hey, you know Cantonese… so therefore, Mandarin must be very easy for you!” – this is not the case as much as you may think.

Cantonese, Mandarin and the many dialects spoken within China all share a common base, it is the written form of Chinese characters. Before my mom’s Mandarin was more fluent, she volunteered at an organization where there was a Mandarin-speaking lady. Although a lot of the communication were in English, when they could not convey what they wanted to, they wrote it out in Chinese. For me, it is harder for me to build the connection between Cantonese and Mandarin spoken forms is because I have a very minor understanding of written Chinese. It’s easy for my mom because she can put 1 and 1 together… “So this characters sounds like X in Cantonese and sounds like Y in Mandarin based on what I read.” and since I cannot read it very well, I can’t equate X with Y. As you can see, this makes learning Mandarin for me a very uphill battle.

Why did I start learning Mandarin? I began to learn it when I returned from Hong Kong this year. Bebe had expressed to me that she sometimes finds it uncomfortable that I am not able to understand her in her language. Suffice to say, although we share two common languages, Cantonese and English, I can understand her want of me to learn her language. Even I think it would make hanging out with her friends and spending time with her family much more convenient. As you may have read, I had a dislike of learning Mandarin, but sure enough, I feel that I can put forth much effort in learning this language to make future communication a lot easier. Learning languages when you’re older is not like learning it when you’re young. My brain is much slower to absorb and it takes actual effort. When I was young, I barely recall how I truly “learned” languages other than listening to people use it and it’d naturally kick-in. As I got older, this is no longer the case. Although I listen to a lot of people speak Mandarin around me, prior to me starting my lessons, it was just a bunch of words that floated in one ear and out the other.

Switching from Cantonese and learning Mandarin is quite hard because Mandarin is the “original” and “proper” way of the Chinese language. Speaking Mandarin follows the strict written form of Chinese, unlike Cantonese where we have lots of words that don’t even exist in the written form or even within the actual Chinese dictionary. In fact, a lot of my Mandarin-speaking friends have problems picking up Cantonese because we like to use “non-existent” words. Bebe has amazingly mastered Cantonese, probably from watching all those TVB dramas. My realization and pain was having to relearn many of the vocabulary I use. Something as simple as saying “house” 屋企 does not actually exist within the realm of Mandarin and written Chinese. Although those who speak Cantonese and Mandarin might be able to understand that if you were to use those characters together in Mandarin, it is definitely not the PROPER way of saying it. 房子 is the proper written and Mandarin spoken form of house. There is much slang used in Cantonese, so it has taken me a lot of reworking of my brain to deal with the “formalized” Chinese. Mandarin is easy if you have grown up properly learning written Chinese as written Chinese follows-suit with spoken Mandarin. Cantonese not only has a lot of slang, but literally, a bastardized version of Mandarin and Chinese. Mandarin is a very formal and cultivated (斯文) language and I never realized this until I began learning it. Before I started learning Mandarin, I also found it to be a very annoying language, because I suppose it sounded like screeching to me. I ended up relating that to the fact that the people I hear speaking Mandarin aren’t the more “elegant” types. Listening to a very gentle, Mandarin-speaking girls or even  Taiwanese ones (although Taiwanese people have their own language-set, they share a lot of the wording with traditional Mandarin) is actually very sexy. Mandarin really is beautiful when it comes out from the right mouth… haha, especially bebe’s!

People have always complained that I speak English way too fast – most notably when I’m presenting. Teachers always used to say that I got too nervous when presenting and I’d begin to speak really fast, but then I explained to them that it is due to habit of speaking Cantonese. Chinese languages in generally are extremely fast and pronunciations can be VERY easy to miss. I never noticed I spoke very quickly in Cantonese though, but now when I listen to bebe talk on the phone with her friends, I realized that Mandarin is also a very fast-paced language… that is bad, from a learning perspective, lol. When I listen to people speak Mandarin slowly, I have time to notice the tones and decode the word. When they speak fast, I’m trying to absorb so much I only catch bits and pieces of it. Of course I need to adapt to listening to it and decoding it fast enough, but that will come with time and exposure. I always hoped that when we go out, bebe can use some easy communication with me in Mandarin, but I try to avoid it with her mainly because I don’t think she has the patience to teach me her language and all that would do is get her frustrated and then become even more negative. I’m not saying I could even hold up a complex conversation as well as I can in English or Cantonese, but that is a START.

Rosetta Stone - Mandarin

Rosetta Stone - Mandarin

I started using a program called Rosetta Stone. I did a lot of research into this program before getting it because it is a lot of money. It’s about $500 for the entire Mandarin Chinese box set. Yes, I am nuts, all that damn money right? Well, it’s for bebe and there’s almost nothing that I wouldn’t do for her to help our relationship. One could argue learning a new language is only for my own gain, but the reality is why ELSE would I need to learn this language otherwise? Everywhere I need to go I can get away with just English and if necessary, Cantonese. This program is incredibly long and built with much complexity – not complexity for the student, but the way they make it WORK. I’m absolutely amazed by how much I have learned. Even my mom, as rare as it may be, expressed how proud she is that I can pick up the language so quickly. Now, I’m not saying I’m a professional Mandarin speaker now, but compared to how crappy my Mandarin was before (or try, not even knowing any, lol) – it is a huge JUMP over a matter of 2 months. For the first few sections, I did relatively fast, however, I am beginning to slow down. This is not because I’m losing the drive to learn, but because the chapters are beginning to become harder, making fast chapter advancements much slower. I’d much rather take the time to perfect it and truly understand it, rather than trying to jump ahead for the sake of “getting further.”

What makes this program so amazing when there are so many language-learning programs out there right? Well, I’ve experienced it first hand myself, WOW! They use a method called “Dynamic Immersion” and while there are times when it simply tries to drill things in your head over and over again, you don’t feel it much – unlike at school. Honestly, there were times I quit a chapter and said to myself, “Damn, there’s no way I can even remember this” and then I walk away. When I think of it a day later, all of a sudden I realized I could remember it… in fact, almost crystal-clear. It makes me amazed at how well they’re able to make things stick in your head. I didn’t even know I learned that stuff when I actually DID! One of the biggest things about learning a new language is finding someone to speak it with you. Luckily, I have many friends who are native-Mandarin speakers, who help me along my way. However, I still find it tough to bring myself to have conversations with them. On the other hand, when I go out to places like T&T or even at the Chinese food place in the mall, I dare to speak it with them – however little I can do. I know that unlike a fluent-speaker, I spit out word-by-word rather than “smoothly” – but at least I should get credit for ATTEMPTING it rather bravely. The reality is that when I speak to these people, they may be laughing inside at my horrible attempt to ‘speak their language’ – but I may never see them again, so it’s easier to get over my follies. On the other hand, speaking to someone I know always seems rather embarrassing when I can’t get the right words out. I wish I was more like my dad because he told me when he came to Canada, his English still wasn’t “all the way there” and he’d often carry a dictionary around as he conversed and eventually, built up his language skills enough to be fluent. Nevertheless, he always said to me, “Sure, I’m sure those people laughed at me when I tried to speak English, but I don’t care what they think!” – if I had that kind of courage, I’d be much better off.

I think about this entire learning process, I must say, it is rather wonderful. Every time I complete each “section” just a small fraction of a chapter, I feel extremely proud. I know bebe is feeding me the willpower and the intellect to continue learning. I’ve lost motivation many times in the past, particularly with working out, lol, because I lack that DRIVE. This time, bebe is providing me with this drive, enabling my mind to stay concentrated and to focus on learning this language. Bebe is also giving me a reason to learn it, because it will help improve our communication ability with each other and also, making sure that I understand what’s happening around me when her family or friends are speaking Mandarin. Do I dare say that I’ll be able to decode everything that will happen around me? Well, maybe and maybe not. As I get more exposure to Mandarin, hopefully through her and interactions with family and friends, I’ll be able to pick up on “real” lessons through experience and immersion – rather than just through this program. Although I may only be able to communicate effectively after finishing the entire 3 sets , further immersion into her environment will truly help me to build upon what I learned and make my language learning practical.

For those who are learning Mandarin or perhaps even a different language, I will definitely vouch for Rosetta Stone being a great tool. I’m not sure whether it effectively replaces a “teacher” or “in-class lesson” – but I’ll tell you it’s definitely cheaper and less time consuming. The odd thing is this type of learning style doesn’t require “homework” – but reinforces the learning very well. Conversely, many of the “taught” courses all require in-class lessons along with homework to accomplish the same thing. According to them, you learn naturally, speak confidently and stay motivated. The way they teach the language simulates the way that children learn languages, therefore making it effortless for me to learn it. Like I said, I didn’t even realize I learned half the things I actually did. By matching apple with apple, it made the learning experience EASY. Speaking confidently, I definitely do it well in front of the computer. This programs has a state-of-the-art voice recognition system which is very important particularly for Mandarin because of the word enunciation and that tone is absolutely CRUCIAL. Sometimes I get tongue-tied saying something and it forces me to say it over and over again until I get it right! Of course when I actually speak it with people, they don’t ask me to “say it again” (unless it’s REALLY messed up) and we make do with trying to communicate with what I do know. Staying motivated is amazing how they do it. Because the program allows you to go at your own pace, repeat things, pause on things, fast forward and doesn’t hassle you – I feel very RELAXED when I’m taking these lessons. These lessons also feel very fulfilling after I complete them, I get a sense of, “Hey, I’m doing better!”

Looking at one of the words I learned, I almost know I’m going to trip on it one time and get my ass laughed off. Nevertheless, it’ll be pretty funny. Washroom is 衛生間 or pronounced wei sheng jian. Sanitary napkin is 衛生巾 or pronounced wei sheng jin. Whether or not you can properly read pinyin, as you can see, the sounding of those are EXTREMELY close, lol. Maybe to a native Mandarin speaker, they can easily separate the tones of jian and jin, but I can’t do it very well at the moment and I need to continue to ensure I hit the right tones XD Can you imagine the embarrassment if I said the wrong thing? LOL! Um.. “Excuse me, where can I find the WASHROOM?” 😆 — can you see the potential for major catastrophe there? HAH! Of course I wouldn’t mind being led to the sanitary napkins section if I was in a supermarket, but how weird would that be if I asked that in a restaurant? Oh man…

Anyways, so today, I was planning to have a lighthearted discussion with bebe. I told her I missed her while she was away and asked her if she felt the same. Obviously she couldn’t answer that, so then I kind of asked her why she still doesn’t feel like that. I was not planning on having a huge argument over it because when I asked her, it was simply of inquisitive nature and I wasn’t intending to imply she was “not being fulfilling enough” – which is what I guess she ended up perceiving it as. It was really just an innocent and perhaps grin-and-ask type question, one of those ones you never really expect an answer for. I expected a shrug and a “I just don’t feel ready yet” answer and then that would’ve been the end of that and moved on. Unfortunately, because of my stinking big mouth, it erupted into a very negative situation. The bad thing is that if I had just said nothing, it wouldn’t have caused all of this.

Sometimes I tell myself I’m so fucking stupid for saying things like that. I know that I understand myself and that I know when I am joking or just prodding at her – but sometimes she doesn’t know when I’m doing that and then she ends up taking things the wrong way. I was in no way telling her or wanting to making her feel she wasn’t “holding up her end” because she is – I can tell just from the past 3 months that she’s been trying her best to bring those feelings to surface, so there is NO blame at all that I’m placing on her. But unfortunately, by asking, I brought some negativity to the surface and that was purely my fault for bringing it up. Perhaps when I wanted just grin-on-my-face jokingness, it ended up not so well when I can’t convey tone/facial expression properly. It kind of pissed me off WHY I would even say such things… sometimes I question my own intelligence. I know that when she’s ready to take the relationship to the next step, she’ll tell me so, whether verbally or through body language, why would I be so foolish as to even ask her these things, particularly when she has problems conveying her thoughts? ARG. Can’t I just keep my mouth shut sometimes? I totally instigated this… she trailed into a conversation where it was a defining moment whether we would erupt this into something and I still stepped into it by having to make a statement about it. Why must I have an opinion on everything? I should learn what my mom taught me about just holding back sometimes. Ever since my dad passed away, my mom had always said she looked back and wonder why they got into arguments sometimes. It dawned upon her that sometimes if she had just held back her “thoughts” and not always “take a stance” on everything, there would never be a catalyst to start an argument. I know that if I just didn’t comment on what bebe said and I had to “throw my 2-cents of thought” into the conversation, none of this would have happened. I know that it doesn’t change the reality of the situation, but it DOES prevent something like this that gives her MORE leverage and negativity.

I had to completely steer clear of anymore relationship-related stuff because I didn’t want this to fester. The last thing I need is something to give us more reasons to throw at each other. Best to keep the calm and keep the peace. Unlike other couples, maybe we should not talk about the direction of our relationship, and just accept it as-is, lol. Oh, I definitely need less opinions on everything… or well at least not express them. As of the last time I saw her, things were beautiful and we were growing closer. Something happened over the past week with her friend that has really drawn this negativity out in her. I would think perhaps it was relationship or family-related that happened with her friend that seemed to throw a wrench into the crankshaft. Bebe had been so positive about our relationship, up to the last week when she was away at her friend’s and something was amidst. I need to work on embracing bebe’s comfort level with me, making sure that she doesn’t feel like she’s bad in this relationship or the failing point. NEITHER of us are a failing point and we can’t let this relationship fail. I promised bebe I’d continue to be whole I am and told her to stop feeling like she’s “not giving me enough” because I’m not asking for more, I’m asking her to be who she is until she wants to give me more. Sometimes I guess she feels like I’m pushing her or feeling like I’m implying she’s not being satisfying enough. I’m definitely NOT trying to convey that as much as sometimes I ask her things about our direction, I simply want to “know” things – but not with the intention of pushing her beyond her limits at the moment. I know that bebe’s the type of girl that when she feels she’s ready, she’ll step up to the plate – just like she did for us the first time and now is like no other – we will overcome these obstacles together and we will grow and learn to cherish each other in all the right ways to come!

Alan Tam 譚詠麟 – 小風波

如讓你看見這痛苦中的我
誰願再掀起小風波
其實我與你好知心好清楚
但偏要製造苦楚

還願看見你看你想不想我
還願看你心可苦楚
其實你也痛彼此一般的多
問可有快樂分給我

今天的當初我只愛你一個
心裡有句說話要對你說清楚
可否息風波你對我已不錯
心裡也暗暗認我也有一點點錯

還願你再約我到公園等我忘掉了往昔開始過
其實我共你好知心好清楚願此際你在想我
其實我與你過往真開心過留住那笑聲於心窩
其實我共你早交出心一顆應該帶笑入愛河
共墮愛河

OOH但願大家言你與我都有點錯
OOH但願大家言再與你相唱和

Oddly enough, I was JUST listening to this song yesterday so I thought it’d be very fitting today to post it. I blame myself for instigating this argument because I could’ve avoided it all had I just not pushed her buttons. Sometimes I even find myself annoying, why do I purposely do things like that? LOL. It’s kind of like the kid who sees a puddle and still jumps into it, knowing very well that he’ll get dirty! This song is about all the “trivial issues” that couples run into but in the end, he (the singer) expresses that no matter what matters come up, that she (the song recipient) is still the one and only person to him. I really believe in the power of words, because hearing these lyrics makes me think of these stupid little things I do to bebe and although most of it are misunderstandings. Even though bebe and I may sometimes do something that the other end “doesn’t like” – I still know that I need to make myself clear that she is the one and only special girl for me and that these little matters can be overcome. I admit I am wrong to her when I am, and apologize deeply for my mistakes.

I don’t have any pre-translated English versions of this, so if you can understand it – great – if not, oh well 😛 Just skip this part, haha.

Funny tidbit that I never realized how learning Mandarin would help me… I can (partially/fully) understand the pad/tampon commercials that are in Mandarin now, LOL! 😀

譚詠麟 -朋友 (Alan Tam – Friends)

I really wanted to find a good song for my Wednesday post, but couldn’t find one that really I could use. Apparently after reviewing most of my music collection, many of them are Chinese love songs which really wouldn’t be suitable for the occasion, haha. Found an excellent one that fits the bill perfectly! Holy, this is a timeless classic. For those who have grown up in a Chinese family, I’m sure you’ll have heard this song a million times already, LOL.

Translation by: thekeck

譚詠麟 -朋友

Alan Tam – Friends

繁星流動    和你同路
All the stars floating here and there, I walk this road with you
從不相識開始心接近
We never met each other in the past, but now our hearts begin to move closer
默默以真摯待人
Quietly, we treat each other with true sincerity

人生如夢    朋友如霧
Life is like a dream, friends are like a mist
難得知心几經風暴
It is rare to find friends who intimate understand you, and will weather the storms and rain with you
為著我不退半步正是你
It is because of you then I will not take a step backward

遙遙晚空點點星光息息相關
In this faraway night sky, the scatter of stars appear so closely connected
你我那怕荊棘鋪滿路
You & I, even if this road is lined with thistles and thorns
替我解開心中的孤單
You will help me (literally translation is ‘on my behalf’) undo the loneliness in my heart
是誰明白我
It is you whom understands me best
情同兩手一起開心一起悲傷
Our friendship like two hands, passing through the good times and the times of pain
彼此分擔不分我或你
Share each other’s worries and responsibilities, with no differentiation between you and I
你為了我     我為了你
You for me, and I for me
共赴患難絕望里緊握你手
Together, we will pass through trials and troubles and overcome all hopelessness, as I tightly grip your hand
朋友
As friends

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