11 April 2008
I just had a phone conversation with a Chinese friend on the phone. When I got off the phone, my spouse sitting beside me asked, "Do you feel good?" It took me a moment to figure out he was talking about. What he meant was, "Do you feel good about having the ability to carry on a conversation in Chinese?"
I replied somewhat incredulously, "Was I really speaking Chinese?"
“Yes,” he replied, "the entire conversation was in Chinese."
Wow! I was amazed at the thought. In a sense, I should feel good about that. And I do, sort of. But on the other hand, there’s always more to go. In honesty, my answer to the question "do you feel good about it?" is, “No! I feel very inadequate!”
We’re all familiar with the person who knows enough words of a language to pretend they can speak it, until they actually get into a situation where they need to have some useful conversation and they’re totally lost. One of my best friends in high school used to tell me every morning in Russian, “the blue frog loves you.” We would both laugh, because we both knew that was the total extent of his fluency. Sometimes I feel as if the only thing I can say in Chinese is the equivalent of “the blue frog loves you”! I wish my conversational skill was at a higher level! My Chinese is never good enough to make me feel happy about how I’ve done. During that conversation just now, I didn’t feel fluent at all.
Subjectively, the phone conversation felt rather as if I were running through a field of tree stumps, trying to get to the other side of the conversation without stumbling over a stump or tripping on my feet. And, just like a field cleared of trees where the stumps remain, it wasn’t a very pretty picture.
If I had been searching for mental images to use as analogies, I don’t think I would have considered “tree stumps” as being at the top of the list. But as I thought about it, the image of tree stumps (and trying to run through them) feels about right. If I try to engage in some Freudian style speculation about this image, perhaps tree stumps represent the English language that has been cut down, except that some stumps remain to trip me up. I’m unable to use English to communicate, hence the trees are gone. The stumps of English remain, however, in the form of the way my mind attempts to form the grammar and syntax as I navigate through the conversation.
In order to speak Chinese, I have to step around obstacles that are created by the fact that my mind automatically applies the layer of English grammar and syntax to my every thought. Like tree stumps, these vestiges of my native language shape the initial way my mind attempts to construct the language, thereby interfering with my ability to "run" across the a very different field. I have to consciously navigate around the stumps, looking down at my feet to make sure I don’t misstep, instead of looking at the horizon.
The tree stumps aren’t limited to grammar and word order, either. I also have to consciously bear in mind that Chinese language makes distinctions that are not made in the English language. Measure words are just one example. For instance one chair is "yi ge __ ", but one piece of paper is "yi zhang ___", one tiger is "yi zhe ___", and one person is "yi wei ___". Over time, using these distinctions becomes more natural, but in the beginning it’s very difficult. Perhaps, it’s as if my mind learns where the tree stumps are and learns how to run around them without tripping. Practice really does make it easier. The hardest, single tree stump for me, so far, has been the very different way of saying in Chinese, “please x (today’s verb) at the same place where we did y (yesterday’s verb)". For instance, the grammar for, "Please drop me off at the same place as last week,” is very different from English! The word order is, "y place please x," (as in, "at last week get out of car place, please drop me off”).
Well, whenever I get stumped up by all those trees, I try to collect myself, trip along in spite of my bummed toes, and keep on trying. After all, the blue frog loves me. And if I try hard enough, stumble enough times and learn from those stumbles, eventually I do (usually) find a way to get through the field.