I started taking Chinese at hakwon this week. When I went to sign up last week I originally tested to get into a MWF class, but after I took the written exam they told me they didn’t have a teacher around to interview me, so would I mind doing the interview over the phone? I jokingly said, “But the phone is so much harder!” Long story short, I did the phone interview the next day and bombed; they put me in beginning Chinese. But then there weren’t enough students so the class was cancelled and I had to do the process all over again at another hakwon. This time I did the interview in person and was placed in level 3. (I would have put myself in level 2...)
I’ve been watching myself go through this process and trying to observe what I can about the process of learning a language. I know from experience in Korea how much harder it is to understand a language over the phone. When I can, I do things in person, especially if it is something I’m doing for the first time: I go to the bank in person, go to the dentist to make an appointment in person. Once I know the people and have a feel for the kinds of questions I’ll need to ask or answer I can do it over the phone, but on the first try it is really hard. In person, I get all sorts of bodily clues, the person can see my expressions (and the fact that I’m a foreigner), I can make use of other tools if I need to. And although it may seem obvious it should be said that when listening to a foreign language one needs to be able to hear very clearly. Background noise, local dialects, mumbling, and idiosyncratic pacing (you know those people who suddenly speed up at the end of a sentence) are all things that can really mess me up in conversation.
So I was really proud of myself for going through the process of registering for a Chinese class in Korean. The test directions were all in Korean, I had to translate from Korean, etc. It wasn’t a big deal (I don’t often have problems with my Korean these days) but I realized as a froze during the test that I had been learning Chinese with an English book, and having to go from Korean to Chinese rather than English to Chinese was messing me up. Chinese and English are more similar grammatically, and when I read Korean the Korean kind of takes over. I found myself translating back into Korean without thinking.
The textbook we’re using in class is also, naturally, a book written for Korean speakers, and some of the vocabulary is hard enough that I don’t understand the Korean translations either, so I had to recharge the batteries for my Korean-English dictionary and carry it around along with my Chinese-English dictionary. There’s a lot of definitional triangulation going on!
The class is hard (I think I really should have been in level 2) but I don’t mind; I’ll learn a lot more if its on the hard side, and I really like the teacher, who is Chinese. She speaks about 95% in Chinese, which I really like just for the sake of learning but also because occasionally when she’ll clarify something in Korean it jars me. Her Korean accent is not that great and it takes me a moment to figure out which language she was speaking and then figure out her accent and usually by that time I’ve lost track of the conversation. I think I follow about 50% of what she says during an average class, though I have good and bad listening days.
This experience reminds me of the classes I took when we moved here, when good amounts of the dialogue would pass through my ears without me understanding what they were about. But I learned a lot of Korean that way, and most of all I learned how to listen. There’s a certain kind of state of mind you have to be in, I think, a sort of receptive, open state of mind, letting everything into your brain and not trying to too-actively tangle with it. If you start trying to consciously pick apart this word or that one you lose track of the flow of the conversation and then you lose the thread of meaning. It is hard to describe how this works exactly, but when I was sitting in class this week I kept thinking, with amazement and pride, that I can get into that state of mind very easily now, and whether it is Korean or Chinese I’m listening to, achieving that kind of receptive state doesn’t exhaust me the way it used to. I can see why they say that people who speak 3 languages tend to pick up new languages more easily -- your mind has been trained to absorb language and no longer gets so disarrayed by waves of input. I don’t feel overwhelmed, I don’t feel like I need to understand one word to get to the next. If I don’t understand something I just let it go and wait for the next one and make inferences. I don’t know my Chinese skills have improved much in the last few days, but the Chinese seems to come out of my mouth with less effort than it did a week ago. But I still don’t speak very well... it’ll take some time, and just as it happened with Korean, there will probably be times when I feel like I’m learning a lot, very quickly, and times when I feel like I’m stuck and not really improving. But I’m excited about the class and just fascinated with the process of learning, with observing the way my brain works.
But more importantly, I need to stop watching Prison Break, or watch season 2 really quickly, because its impeding my studying. We began watching while in the States and were quickly addicted. We’ve finished season 1, but there were several days this past week when we went to bed really late because of that show. Other than our Battlestar Galactica phase I haven’t really watched any TV in the past year or so and I had forgotten what a pleasurable experience it can be. And -- I have to say it, since I ranted about the disappointing kiss in Surgeon BongDarHee -- the kiss between Michael and Sara towards the end of season 1 was really, really good. What can I say? I’m American. I like a good onscreen kiss.
- Aiden holds my hand until we get near the middle school (which is across the street from his elementary school) then suddenly he drops back about 10 feet and pretends he doesn’t know me. He’s suddenly very aware of these bigger kids; he’s fascinated with the way they get punished every morning. Actually, I find it fascinating too. As they enter the school gate they get checked for all sorts of stuff: the length of their hair, their skirts, the state of their uniforms, etc. If something isn’t right they get punished; first they sit in lines near the gate and later they either get hit or their heads or shaved or they have to do push ups or some other similar physical exercise (standing with arms out?). I haven’t stuck around to watch the whole process but it is kind of funny and grotesquely strange at the same time. Middle school kids here are like a different species. I was walking by the school one day and streams of girls were coming out crying; it turns out they had had an exam. Exams are a serious business.
- on the trip back to SF we were in Minneapolis for a layover and Aiden asked me if the population of Minneapolis was small. I didn’t quite know where that question was coming from, and started into this explanation about the relative populations of cities... and then he said, “Because it’s ‘mini,’ Mommy!” Aha. Got it.
- And then while we were boarding the plane he asked, “Mommy, why do men like women? When they’re adults, I mean?” Good question, little boy, good question.