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.  :-/

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