Eureka! This morning I was able to use the Mandarin word for "key" without thinking twice about it! What a milestone that is!
I’ve speculated that I have to need, look up, and use a new word about 20 times before I commit it to memory, but I must have repeated that process 400 times before I remembered the word for "key"! I can’t count the number of times I’ve drawn a blank on the word for key, as in: "Ni you meiyou ____ uhm ________ a, a, a KEY? [Do you have a , a , a, KEY?]" and then add in the words "kai men" [open door] and do a pantomime of unlocking a door.
There were two reasons why this particular word was so hard for me. First, the very first time I asked Song Ying the word for key, as I was trying to learn it, she told me both the Mandarin and the Cantonese words for it. This was when I was beginning to learn a bit of Cantonese, and she thought it would be helpful for me to be bilingual in Mandarin and Cantonese. But it was too much. I can only learn one language at a time, and the addition of the Cantonese word just muddied the already cloudy waters of my memory, causing constant confusion about what exactly was the word. For the longest time, my brain simply shut down at the idea of "which word is it," leading to an instant feeling of confusion and stubborn refusal to embed the word into memory.
The second confusing issue ws the sound of the word itself, "yao shi" [key]. The "shi" and "zhi" words all tend to run together in my mind, leading to confusion of this word with the sound of other words like shou(d)zhi (finger) or wa(d)zhi (socks). There have been numberous times when we’ve been going out the door and I ask my traveling companion, "Do you have a sock?" At times like that, it’s helpful to have a sense of humor and a rather thick skin (and hope that one’s companion doesn’t fall over and roll on the floor laughing). I notice I’ve recently been able to learn more words in the "zhi" category (such as bao(4)zhi [newspaper] and bao(2)zhi [dumpling]). There are more examples of using similar sounding, but wrong words, but I can’t use them here because they would be obscene. (I’m only halfway joking on that one, because I HAVE done it.)
Well, this morning I’m triumphant! Not only did my new word pop right into my mind when I needed it, but also I very clearly knew that I was NOT talking about a shouzhi or wazhi. I very suddenly knew those words, too, and could use them at any time even though I don’t need to use them nearly as often. Strange how the mind works. Now that I know them all, I can’t see how anyone could fail to hear the differences in the sounds. As a taxi driver laughingly told me the other day (after I told him that the sounds of Chinese were very hard for me to hear), "Chinese isn’t hard to hear at all! English is hard to hear!" The sounds we know aren’t nearly as difficult to comprehend as the sounds we can’t yet put a linguistic handle on.
In terms of ear training, I’m reminded of when I first met our driver. It was important to me to know and say his name. But even when he had repeated his name six times, I still couldn’t comprehend it. I mean, I couldn’t have even repeated the syllables. It sounded like there were ten of them all strung together in different ways. Six months later, one day when I was feeling particularly courageous, I decided to have another go at it, and asked him again to teach me his name. This time, I could at least hear the sounds, or so I thought, but he gave up on teaching me his formal name (Cai Yong Fu) and exhasperatedly ended my tutoring sessions by saying "Jiao Wo Afu! [Just call me Afu]!" (which is a pet name or informal, family-only name when the ‘ah’ sound is put in front of the Fu, but it’s all the simple American could manage).
I notice that my Mandarin often seems to grow by fits and starts. I learn a whole lot all at once, then plateau while my mind and mouth seem to adjust, then there’s a period where my brain seems to resist change, then suddenly I learn more at some unexpected time. Like this morning, when I suddenly knew how to say the word for "key" after so many unsuccessful months of trying to remember it. I’ve also noticed a another, more gradual transition, and that is in fluency (versus vocabulary). If I look back at my Mandarin notebooks from three years ago, I notice I don’t always remember the vocabulary in those notebooks, but I’m certain that I’m more fluent in using and saying what I DO know. Now, after more than three years, I have no problem hearing and saying Afu’s formal name correctly, which is only useful when I’m introducing him to strangers since I only call him Afu in ordinary usage! I have no trouble spitting out the words "xiao xin [be careful]" or "jiao jingcha [call police]!" and they don’t feel like tongue twisters like they did when I first practiced them.
But the main way I know I’m getting more fluent is not on account of any subjective feeling that learning Chinese is getting easier. To the contrary, the more I learn, the more proficiency seems just beyond my reach. As soon as I can have a conversation with the taxi driver about where he’s from, how long he’s lived here, and whether his family is here with him, I find myself unable to go to the next basic level, frustratingly unable to understand anything more than the barest fundamentals about anything else he might say. A true example is that the other day I was able to manage booking a private room for yum cha (brunch) in a restaurant, ordering, and managing the basic details, but the manager who did all this for me came and told me something important as we were being seated. I was unable to discern what he was saying. Since he said something about 11:00, I supposed that what he was saying was that they had a lunchtime reservation for the room and we needed to leave by 11. Or was it that he said they don’t usually give private rooms at breakfast, or was it that he said they stop serving yum cha at 11? Or was it that he was letting me know he had done me a great favor and hoping I’d give him a tip? I don’t know! One of my companions also surmised that he was trying to politely say he needed us out by 11:00, so that’s where we left it. Not quite sure.
No, the main way I know I’m getting more proficient is simply that life has gotten a bit easier. I no longer have near-heart attacks when driving in a taxi, suffering through a taxi driver who doesn’t know where I’m going and takes me to the wrong place, worrying if I’ll be able to get him directed back to my home, or struggling to say a word three times before he understands it. Now, they seem to understand where I want to go the first time I say it. Not only because I know the bare words, but also because I’ve learned the word order and inflection to make myself understood in a tonal language. You simply have no idea how much easier this makes my life! Wow, the thought of being able to get from point A to point B! Never again will I take that for granted! The small joys in life — the ability to communicate is like having keys in a pocket — priceless!