My Struggle with Mandarin

To start things off, I should apologize. I’m sure at some point in this blog I have rambled on about how much I just LOOVVVEEE languages and I’d be happy to learn any language in the world.

I must retract that sentiment.

I have been in Taiwan for 1.5 years now and have attempted to progress in Mandarin Chinese during 3 separate periods. I know the basics. I can’t say I can ‘get around well enough’ because I still can’t read the majority of foods that are on a menu, which makes eating difficult. But I can say what I want or where I am going and I’m great at ordering my daily coffee or tea.

But…I just cannot seem to get into it. Everyday I feel guilty for not learning more and taking advantage of being here while I can, but the desire is Just. Not. There. Some may attribute it to the difficulty of Chinese for English speakers. It ranks last in the categories provided by the US Foreign Service. HOWEVER, Korean is in the same category and I have a great desire to go back to learning Korean. I listen to Korean music (and Italian and Spanish for that matter) and they all give me the desire to keep learning. I’m filled with excitement and intrigue at the use of the language and its differences from other languages. I enjoy the sound of the lyrics and try to imitate them even if I haven’t learned that vocabulary yet. That doesn’t happen when I listen to Chinese music. So I just put my chin in my hands and sigh in frustration.

I do have one theory as to why. I have a feeling that it has to do with the ease of reading. I am a lover of languages because I am a lover of words and sounds, so if I cannot read the words, I feel as though something is missing. Like there is a hole in the process. The Korean alphabet I was able to learn to read in one night. Then I spent the following two years reading signs all over Seoul. It was fun to pronounce it in my head and count the words I knew. I prefer to read Korean words written in the Korean alphabet than to read them romanized. The sound comes out more naturally in my head.  When listening to another language, I sometimes automatically visualize the words that  I am hearing.  It helps me remember what I hear I suppose.  Being fluent in Spanish, I can also read French, Italian and Portuguese with much greater ease and I love the challenge of seeing how much I can understand.  But with Mandarin, the characters (traditional here in TW) have too many strokes for my brain to wrap its head around.

So it seems my love of languages may be limited to the ‘see – n – say’ sort.  The kind that doesn’t make me feel as though I need to be an artist to write it down.  This goes against the grain of the future polyglot in me, but I suppose other polyglots have languages that don’t speak to them as well.  I hope.  Please tell me I’m not alone here.

On a positive note, I will say that Chinese was easier to learn than I had initially expected, so if the appearance of difficulty is deterring you, don’t let it.  Give it a try.  Also, I like how some of the words just seem like two simpler words put together to explain something more complex.  I can’t think of an example at the moment, so if someone knows what I mean, please feel free to put an example in the comments.  It’s quite logical, that part of the language.

Has this happened to anyone else out there?  Have you ever had trouble getting into a language that you felt that you had to learn?  I don’t want to be one of THOSE people who lives in a country and doesn’t learn the local language.  I never thought I’d be one of THOSE people.  And the Taiwanese people are very lovely folk, so it would be nice to communicate with them in their own language.  I just need to drum up the desire to learn it first.  :-/


Reflections and Resolutions

2011 was a damn good year.  It was my year of FINALLYs.

I finally went on a cruise.

I finally saw more European countries.

I finally got an iPhone AND a Kindle Fire.

I finally started taking Korean classes.

I finally got my root canal fixed! (blog on that to come later)

And many other smaller finallys along the way.

But that is not to say that I am finished.  Not even close.  I actually feel like I am just getting started.  There are still many things that I want to accomplish and figure out over the next 12 months to continue to improve my already good life and to continue building my ball o happiness.

As for last year’s resolutions, I’d say to some extent I accomplished about 25-50% of them.  The biggest success was in the form of travel.  I wanted to visit two new countries in 2011 and I visited 4 (technically 7 if you count airport layovers too).

Here are my aspirations for this year (in no particular order):

1.  Continue my intensive Korean lessons.  This means I should be able to get to level 5 (out of 6) by the end of my employment contract in July.  Also, I want to take the TOPIK test and see how high of a level I can achieve.

2.  Learn more Italian.  I am currently considering doing a 3 month intensive language stint in Italy after my contract ends so that I can achieve a high level of that language as well.  Plus of course the added benefit of not working for 3 months (haven’t been able to do that for 10 years!!) and seeing more of I.T.A.L.Y.  So if anyone has any recommendations on language schools there that have scholarships or work for tuition type deals, please let me know.

3.  Travel even more.  With trips expected to Taiwan and either Philippines or Thailand before the end of spring, this resolution is already in the works.  But I still want more.  I’d like to explore more of Asia while I am here including but not limited to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Jeju Island (Korea).

4.  Live a more minimalistic lifestyle.  Being an expat, and one who likes to live in small spaces, I’m learning to retrain my shopping habits and buy less STUFF.  I’ve talked about this in other posts as well and I want to continue to make this idea my way of life.  (See short, but inspirational TED video below on living in small spaces.  It’s one of my all time favs and I have watched it several times to remind me*).  I prefer to spend my time and money traveling, not cooped up in my apartment, so why do I need so much stuff there?  So this means getting rid of bad purchases, parting with my books and giving up on clothes that I barely wear.

5.  Learn how to balance my moods.  I tend to fluctuate from extreme happiness to extreme sadness and irritability.  This could be attributed to hormones, the emotional swings of a creative mind, a nutritional imbalance or something more serious such as a bipolar or anxiety disorder.  I’m not sure.  So, I need to figure out what it is and control it so that I can live a more balanced life (and stop driving my friends crazy).

6.  Figure out what I want to do with my life.  This will be a hard one to accomplish simply because I figure out what I want to do with my life all the time…and then I change my mind a week later.  (I can see my family and friends laughing and nodding in agreement)  I am known for getting super excited and obsessed about an idea, then changing my mind to something COMPLETELY different.  In the past week alone, I seriously contemplated moving to 4 different countries.

As for careers I am still considering the idea of being a writer, although perhaps magazine writing would be better suited for my attention span than novel writing.  I really enjoying teaching my younger students (1st-2nd grade), so continuing teaching English is an option (just with another company since mine is getting worse by the day).  I am also now researching the possibility of being a flight attendant, not only for the travel benefits, but because I’d like a job where being multilingual (see resolutions 1 & 2 above plus of course Spanish and English) makes me more marketable.  It would be a good fit for me since I don’t mind working holidays and don’t have a significant other, children, pets or a mortgage to go home to so there would be less stress on the scheduling front.  If anyone has any info on that career path let me know.  Also, if you have any other suggestions on what I should do with my life, I gladly welcome any out of the box thinkers.  🙂

I love the prospect of a new year and starting over.  It’s life refreshed.  What’s on your plate for 2012?

* TED video – Graham Hill (only 5 minutes long and worth it!) 

30 Day Challenge #1

The word Han-geul in Han-geul. Hangeul is read...

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I am sure I mentioned this before, but I am a self-diagnosed, severe….procrastinator.  I have so many things I want to do in life, but if given too much time to get them done, they never get done.  When I was in high school I got my best grades after I started working not one, but two jobs.  My dad joked that if I got a third one, I’d get straight A’s.  He was probably right.  Right now I have the luxury of time on my hands and am therefore not getting much accomplished, so I’m going to try to change that starting today.  I, of course, have tried setting goals for myself before and failed miserably.  However, I’m hoping that if I post my goal on here in a public forum, the idea of having to tell you I failed 30 days from now is much scarier than simply admitting the failure to myself, alone in my apartment.  So if I fail, feel free to laugh, point and mock me.

Any of you who watch TED will recognize the following video:

It is a very popular video on TED because it’s short, sweet and relatable.  Most people I know want to accomplish something from learning a language, playing guitar, getting into yoga, cooking…the list is endless.  I normally don’t jump on these inspirational bandwagons because of, well, the aforementioned failure rate and my ability to stay focused on one interest for more than like 3 days.  But alas, I am desperate.

So, what is my challenge you ask?  I am going to learn at least one new lesson a day from the Talk to Me in Korean (TTMIK) website.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I love languages and am currently attempting to learn Korean.  This seems like an obvious To Do since I live in Korea, but most foreigners here don’t bother to learn it, so I am part of a minority I assure you.  You can get around without it here, but I love languages (I should start collecting nickles…err 50won…for every time I say that) so I want to learn it while I’m immersed in it.  I wanted to go to an academy to learn it seriously, but I can’t afford one since one of the main reasons I’m here is to pay off student loans.   The cheapest academy for 2 classes a week is like $175-ish/month.  I’ve been trying to self study for a year, but haven’t been doing so well staying on track.  I’ve got lots of pretty Korean books on my shelf though!  They have free classes on Saturdays at the Seoul Global Center, but I don’t think once a week is enough time to keep my focus; however, now that I’m actually living in Seoul, I may go just to meet other learners and buy another pretty textbook.  😉

If you are in Korea and haven’t heard of TTMIK yet, it’s worth checking out.  It is much more than just a podcast.  They have 6 levels of lessons that include audio lessons and follow along PDF, plus a ‘workbook’ every 10 lessons so you can practice what you learn.  On top of that, they are very interactive.  They encourage and respond to questions and comments.  They always post interesting things on their Facebook site too like translation challenges and cultural lessons.  I’ve never seen a language website so well-rounded, so helpful and so…FREE.  They are amazing.

I have studied some of their lessons already, but I would get overzealous in one day and try to do like 10 of them and end up not retaining anything.  So I will try for one a day and see how much I can learn from just a website.  I think those who live in other countries might struggle with learning from only a website, but since I live here and interact everyday with Koreans, it should be easier for me to incorporate the lessons and practice speaking.  As of right now, I read Korean and know the basics like numbers, where things are, how to order food and buy things and how to ask if a store has something you need.  You’d be surprised how far that little bit gets me.

So without further ado, the challenge commences.  I may post about what I’m learning from time to time, but probably not everyday.  Cross your fingers and wish me luck!

P.S.  I’ve named this post Challenge #1 because I also would like to make myself read/study Italian for one hour a day too, but I don’t want to take on too many goals at one time like I normally do, so we’ll save that for another day o’ motivation.  🙂

Polyglot Goodness

I am an aspiring polyglot.  Yes, you will need to add languages to your growing mental list of my many interests.  Languages fascinate me in every way.  I often wonder about how language first came to be and how people communicated in the early days of international trading.  There is only so much hand gesturing you can do to get your idea across.  Trust me, I know.

But of course, as you are slowly finding out about me, I have many things that interest and fascinate me and trying to dedicate myself to any one of them proves difficult.  Whereas I should be dedicated at least 10-15 minutes every day to each of the languages I know or am learning, I also want to dedicate time to learning the guitar, working on my novel, practicing dance moves, etc.   Not to mention I’ve always been a horrible self-studier and I can’t afford classes just yet (on any of the above abilities I want to learn).

Despite my inability to focus on it as regularly as I would like to at the moment, becoming multi-lingual is truly something that is a life goal of mine and I want to soak up and absorb as much as I can.  So in my own way of trying to remain motivated, I go seek inspiration, usually online, about whatever topic I want to study at the moment and continue to research it to remind myself how wonderful I think that topic is (which I’m sure you are realizing just leads to more procrastination…it’s a vicious cycle I fight with myself about often).

I want to share with you a video I found several months ago of my polyglot inspiration, Luca Lampariello (<—– see his WordPress blog there).  In the video below he is demonstrating his speaking ability in 8 languages.  I am awe-inspired and envious all at the same time.

I’ll admit, I have a bit of a web crush on him.  😉

Anywho…when I find a way to learn how to devote myself to learning one skill at a time, I hope to learn the following languages (any will do, but these are at the top of my list):  Korean and Italian (both of which I’m working on now), Arabic, French, Polish, Russian and Portuguese.

If you could learn another language, what would you want to learn?

Impulse Motivation

The words "Motivation and Emotion" a...

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Impulse motivation is like impulse shopping.  Actually, it sometimes may lead to impulse shopping which is when it is at its most dangerous.  Let me give you an example to show you how it works:

You wake up in the morning feeling motivational.  Maybe it’s a nice day, a new season, or the first Saturday you’ve had free in a long time.  You feel productive and ready to take on the world.  You decide on the spur of the moment that you want to learn…let’s say…Korean.  So you start small by looking at Korean learning websites.  Maybe you jump on Youtube and start to listen to Korean music or watching the famous Korean dramas.  You even look into pricing out a used edition of Rosetta Stone on Amazon.  But it’s still not quite enough.  Now you are addicted to this idea of learning it.  Right now!  So you head to the bookstore.  After spending an hour or so sifting through the entire language section trying to find the perfect books that will help you learn the fastest, you make your purchases and head to the closest coffee shop (which lucky for you is usually conveniently located inside the bookstore).  You get through one or two or even three of the lessons, trying to memorize vocabulary and absorb it all into your brain, one cafe latte at a time.  Then, your sugar high comes to a crashing halt and you just can’t learn anymore today.  So you go back home with your new purchases and put them in a convenient place on your desk to attack again tomorrow.  You tell yourself that you will dedicate one hour a night to learning this new and fascinating language.

Then you never touch them again.


Ever been through that kind of day?  I have.  Often.  I’m known for it actually.  Just ask the guitar that I was – for a day – so eager to learn.  It now sits in my closet, barely touched and barely visible under the hanging winter clothes.  You can insert just about any hobby into this equation.  Maybe you suffer impulse motivation to learn a new language, a new musical instrument, how to knit, cross-stitch, do pilates, yoga, meditation……the list goes on and on.  I used to think I was the only one who suffered these days of motivation, but a good friend of mine mentioned it too, so I have a feeling it is a contagion.  They are like a 24 hour virus.  After the virus is over you think ‘why did I just spend like $100 on something I don’t have time to learn right now!’  …or something similar.

So what hobby did impulse motivation suck you into?



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A South American acquaintance of mine asked recently, upon learning that I spoke Spanish, why so many Americans learn Spanish.  To me, the answer seemed obvious – because of the Latin influences in the US.  Then I realized that he, along with I’m sure countless others from other countries, are unaware of just how much Latin culture has changed the face of the United States in recent years.  I began to list for him a few reasons.  When I finished, he look genuinely surprised.  He said something to the effect of ‘I had no idea Latinos had that much influence there.  That’s amazing.’  Being a big fan of Latin culture myself, I smiled proudly and agreed.  Being an expat, what I miss most is that very aspect of the US.  I miss the Latin side of America (North America that is).

So I thought I’d share with all of you readers outside the US, the ways in which Spanish is seen in everyday life so that you can better understand the importance of this language in our culture.

  1. “Press 1 for English.”  This (or something similar) is what we hear when we call most 800 numbers or any form of customer service number.  Most large companies have to have bilingual staff on hand to handle Latin clientele.  (This is how I obtained a few of my jobs.)
  2. A number of official documents or forms have Spanish equivalents in both the private and government agencies.
  3. The most frequently offered second language courses in schools and universities is Spanish.  In some areas it is even mandatory for students to take Spanish.  (I was required to do so starting in 6th grade and I am grateful for that!)
  4. You can buy separate TV packages with companies like DirecTV that specifically group together Spanish channels.
  5. Most TVs sold in the US have the ability to add Spanish subtitles to various channels. (…which reminds me of that awesome Friends episode where Marcel the monkey pushes the wrong button and changes everything to Spanish.  haha!  Good stuff…sorry back to business.)
  6. There are numerous successful Spanish TV and radio stations throughout the US.
  7. In music, there has been an incoming stream of crossover artists from Latin America who bring with them bilingual songs as well as bilingual albums.  A few examples would be Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, Daddy Yankee and Shakira.  Most notably the video for Shakira/Alejandro Sanz‘s duet, La Tortura,  was one of the first Spanish language videos to get heavy rotation on MTV and VH1 in 2005.
  8. Spanish can be seen on some product labels and also in some restaurant menus.
  9. The tags of clothing including sizes and how to care for them are in both languages.  For example, you can see a large shirt that says “L/G” on the tag.  G stands for grande, which means large in Spanish.
  10. Machines such as ATMs can be accessed in Spanish.
  11. Mexican restaurants flourish in many areas of the US introducing us to words like taco, burrito, enchilada, guacamole, salsa, fajita, tortilla and flautas.
  12. Linguistically, many Spanish phrases [<—- check out that link, it’s a BIG list!] have gradually been added to American slang or idioms.  Those of non-Hispanic roots can be heard using, or at the very least understanding, words and phrases like que pasa, hombre, amigo, chico, papi, mami, mucho, grande, cerveza, por favor, uno, hola, adios, fiesta, siesta, agua, hasta luego, hasta la vista…and a plethora of inappropriate words (which usually spread the fastest).
I’m sure there are plenty of others, so if you think of them, feel free to comment and add them to the list.
Spanish may not be the second official language of the US, but it’s certainly shaping up to be.