I studied Chinese in school for over ten years, the final year being at a Chinese university in Beijing. In my last post I wrote about my experiences studying Chinese in school. Ten years of study, however, did NOT make me fluent. It didn’t make me sound Chinese. So what did?
In my year at BLCU my teachers always had the same comment during my oral exams – 注意声调 zhù yì shēng diào! That means “pay attention to the tones” – and it was repeated many times. So many times, in fact, that the phrase is burned into my mind – tones and all. My tones were pretty bad, especially on the more basic vocabulary, strangely. I figure that’s because I learned those words a decade earlier when I wasn’t really paying attention.
I first started determined work on my tones out of frustration. I moved into a friend’s apartment in western Beijing, and the nearest major landmark was 紫竹桥 zǐ zhú qiáo, an exit from the 3rd ring road. It is also, unfortunately, quite the tongue twister for an inexperienced speaker of Mandarin. Every time I said it to a taxi driver, there was inevitably 5-10 rounds of me saying zi zhu qiao and him trying to understand what I was saying and then him saying “Ohhhhhh, zǐ zhú qiáo“. Eventually, I got fed up. Clearly whatever I was doing wasn’t working. Finally, my frustration grew greater than my pride, and I said to a driver, “I have trouble saying zǐ zhú qiáo – will you help me get it right?” and spent the entire twenty minute ride repeating zǐzhúqiáo zǐzhúqiáo zǐzhúqiáo over and over, trying to adjust as he corrected me.
It was a humbling experience, and I felt a little like a kindergartener, but to this day I appreciate his kindness in playing tutor to a silly foreign girl. Honestly, whenever I hear foreigners complain about taxi drivers not understanding where they want to go, I think of this. If Chinese speakers don’t understand your Chinese, perhaps you are the one with a problem – not them. It takes humility and hard work to speak a foreign language well, and native speakers are the only ones who can really critique your accent. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re saying it right; if it was right, you’d be understood. I know this because when I fixed my tones I was suddenly understood first time, every time. Well, almost every time.
After that I regularly used taxis as my own personal tutoring service. I would rehearse a sentence in my mind a few times, getting the tones right, say it aloud once, then repeat it in my head again a few times, fixing anything I said wrong out loud. I would pay close attention to their replies; in Chinese it is common for a reply to echo the question, so often they would repeat the same words I had said. Having heard it said correctly, I could fix my pronunciation. I learned a lot of new vocabulary, and especially more street talk as opposed to textbook phrases that aren’t used in everyday life.
In fact, I still do this. I still learn new words from drivers. I spend less time repeating phrases to myself now, but I do still do it, especially with less frequently used vocabulary. In particular, I repeat phrases I hear a local say, trying to fix the feel of the tones and flow of the words in my mind. Most taxi drivers are very happy to help a foreigner with their Chinese – if you haven’t availed yourself of this particular added service before, give it a try!
In the same vein, I spoke with any service person I spent time with. It started with manicures and foot massages – times where I would be sitting with someone for a prolonged period, so might as well chat! I also developed long-term relationships with various vendors – the manicure and massage places, but also at restaurants, with jewellery sellers, black cab drivers, street food vendors, and many shopkeepers at the local market (oh Nanhu, I miss you!) – in particular, a young optometrist, Miao Miao. These relationships led to deeper conversations – instead of having the same surface conversations over and over with every seller, I returned to people I already knew, and could venture into new topics with.
Although I preferred new topics (for my own sanity) there is also a lot of value in having the same conversations over and over again. It seemed that every time a Chinese person would find out I was Australian, a quite predictable conversation would occur. (Although strangely that predictable conversation has changed over the years – should write about that another time). While it annoyed me sometimes, having that same conversation over and over gave me the chance to practise – a chance to perfect words, phrases, tones, and pronunciation I’d messed up previously.
After 4 years in China, a LOT of these conversations, and a lot of deliberate work on my accent, I improved my Chinese to the point that a person not looking at me might think I was Chinese. I was still missing true fluency, though. At this point, though, I moved to Langfang – the final chapter in my language-learning (so far!)