Never Enough

Never Enough

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. 



Filed under Daily Life

2 responses to “Never Enough

  1. 小西


  2. Alex

    My reply to your comment (笑不出来), which seems to translate as "this fails to elicit a smile" is: 您留评论"笑不出来", 但 我没打算这文章滑稽。或许您误会了它,还是或许我误会了您的评论的意思?(I didn\’t intend for this article to be funny.  Perhaps you misunderstood it, or else I misunderstood your Chinese?)  ______________________The entire point of this blog entry is that there is nothing that feels easy or natural about
    trying to speak a language that is so different from my native language.  Nevertheless, I keep trying to speak Chinese in spite of the discomfort and awkwardness of doing so.  The tiny bit of Chinese I\’ve been able to learn does not come easily to me.  That\’s why I use the analogy of tripping over tree stumps.  To speak in a very different language, impeded by the way my mind has been trained to work in English, is
    difficult –sometimes painfully difficult — and frustrating as well. 
    I don\’t have the benefit of a regular teacher, and I\’m not very
    talented.  I make slow and gradual progress only because I do, in fact, keep on trying in spite of the discomfort and awkwardness and mistakes.   When I stump my toe, I keep on running in spite of it. For instance, when I ask the taxi driver to stop at the orange "san yu" ( 伞雨 ) instead of the orange "yu san" (雨伞), I\’m not offended when he chuckles.  I appreciate his help when he kindly coaches me to say "yu san".  As a result of that taxi driver\’s help, I now always remember the correct way to say umbrella.  Thus, I gradually learn even though it takes a bit of courage and resilience to risk making a fool of myself by even opening my mouth in the first place.   If you did happen to misunderstand my writing, don\’t despair!  In fairness to those whose native language is not English but who make the effort to read this blog anyway, I note that my writing style can at times be difficult even for some native speakers.  (This is actually a deliberate stylistic decision.)  I am greatly appreciative of the fact that you, too, make the effort to learn — to speak and think in — a language that is very different from your native tongue.  Any time you find yourself confused by what I\’ve written, feel free to ask a question for clarification. 

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