Past the Khumbu Icefall

I’ve reached a frustrating point of language learning. That’s really kind of a non-statement, I guess, as language study from beginning to end is a trial of Job-like proportions. Still, learning a new language is like a running a marathon without ever having so much as jogged before. It bends and cramps parts of your brain that you’ve never even flexed. I mean, it takes us years and years to learn our first, native language – what do you think happens in your head when you try to learn another one in a much shorter time? But there are parts in the marathon when you feel a “second wind” of sorts coming on, and you feel the long race is almost over. Those are exhilarating moments, but moments they are, and they cause the reminder of the long miles still ahead to multiply our despair. (Learning a language is really dramatic…) 

Unlike languages related to our native tongue, the Chinese vocabulary when you begin is really difficult to lodge in your brain. It’s completely foreign, and your brain doesn’t hardly know what to do with the information or where to stick it. Fortunately, Chinese is loaded – seriously filled – with compound words. The etymology is built right in to the Chinese vocabulary (which makes for some cool Bible lessons, by the way). Now it’s rare that I learn a new word and don’t recognize part or all of it’s make-up. This is encouraging. Makes remembering my vocabulary a easier. 

So what kind of mistakes do I make these days, seven months into the language? Well, my accent is still pretty heavy, I think. I need to sound Chinesier. Sometimes I use words inappropriately. Meaning, I learn what an English word’s equivalent is in Chinese and mistakenly think that I can substitute this Mandarin word anytime I would normally use that English word. Unfortunately, sometimes in a different context, or in a slight variation of meaning, the Mandarin word is completely different. This is a tough part. I still can’t put my finger on whether or not I feel Chinese is more descriptive and precise than English or not. Sometimes a single English word can be translated a dozen different ways, depending on it’s exact use; and sometimes a Chinese word is a perfectly acceptable translation of a dozen English words.  

To give you an example, at the Bible study on Saturday, I wanted to say “a common question,” as in “one we all face.” But instead I said “common” like “not important, not a big deal.” Big difference. Then I said “fix a man” meaning “correct the ways of a man,” but instead I said “fix” like “repair a car engine.” That’ll push your hairline back a couple millimeters!  

Also, we don’t realize in English sometimes how often we express ourselves exclusively by means of idioms. Since idioms are pretty much unintelligible when translated, so we usually translate them by meaning. So when we would say “as soon as possible,” we say a “more fast, more good” kinda thing. But sometimes we don’t even know how to say what we mean without the idiom; we can’t define the idiom without using it. For instance, on Saturday I wanted to say “when we look back on our lives,” but I couldn’t even say what that means without using “look back on”! Does that make sense? Fortunately, I’ve got a room full of college students, most of whom have had English classes for ten-plus years. Usually someone can help me out.  

Beyond that, there’s the tonal pronunciation, the alien sentence structure, the “j” and the “zh,” the “q” and the “ch,” and I still can’t read or write in characters. They make it sound so easy on them fortune cookies, don’t they?

One Comment on “Past the Khumbu Icefall”

  1. Lydia December 29, 2007 at 1:00 pm #

    I enjoyed reading about your experiences of learning Chinese. Very enjoyable and insightful, too. 😀

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