Sunday, July 29, 2007

Minimum effort required?

There are many activities in life where a certain level of effort is required and without that effort the final objective will never be achieved not matter what the time scale. I can decide to run for fitness, but if I wish to run a marathon in a respectable time then I have to invest the effort in training. Simply running for half an hour once a week may make me a little fitter but even after ten years of this I will not be ready for that marathon.

I believe that to learn a language you have to be prepared to work hard, either at a certain level all the time or occasionally in concerted bursts. If most people (there may be exceptional minds to which this does not apply) don't do this then they will only ever achieve a superficial grasp of the language, no matter what the timescale.

My understanding of the mechanics and chemistry of human memory is somewhat superficial (I haven't made that concerted effort to master this kind of knowledge). However there does seem to be an element of "use it or lose it". This use it or lose it principle would suggest that if you only learn in a casual manner then you will reach a point where you are just "treading water", a lot of your effort will be reviewing things you originally learned long ago or the new things you learn will be offset by the old things you are forgetting.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Seconds out, round one..

As I intimated in the last post, as news goes this is a little stale being two months old. But it is far too significant to leave out.

Language learning can be like a sport, even like an extreme sport. There is the training and preparation and eventually the adrenaline rush and thrill of the event.

A couple of months ago I found out that the manager of our Beijing office was coming over for a few days. In the past I avoided talking to him, I couldn't see the point if I was only going to exchanging the odd phrase or two (there are other places to practice that). This time however I sent him an email. I explained that I had been learning Chinese for a little over a year and would like a chat if possible.

Now here was the problem, almost every other time I have talked Chinese face to face I have had some control over the circumstances and some context to start conversation from. Now I am in an open plan office, some of my workmates already make fun of my Chinese learning they know that at some unknown time this guy will be around and they can't wait to see me struggle (its a guy thing, I am just as cruel to them when I get the chance ;)). As the day draws on my mouth feels a little dry, there is a tingling in my arms and my stomach is lurching a little.

Suddenly when I am least expecting it a smiling Chinese guy appears and shakes my hand. My heartbeat is thudding in my ears, I can hear knives sharping in the background. Dry mouthed I stumble through the worst Chinese greeting I have ever uttered. Kindly in English he asks me if I know about the tones yet. Damn this won't do at all....

World shrinks, open plan office vanishes, people vanish, there is just me and a smiling Chinese guy. I tell him I know about tones and apologize we start to talk after brief introduction, we talk about language learning, about Westerners learning Chinese about families ...... I talk in a slow measured way, that belies the huge amount of mental processing going on for each sentence I have to construct (this was the hardest part).

At some point early on he looks at me slightly incredulously and says "you can understand me, I can understand you". It was a surreal experience.

Eventually we had to finish, I discovered to my surprise that we had be talking for almost 30 minutes, and also realized that there was almost no English used. Obviously he was used to speaking to foreigners that may not have a good grasp of Mandarin but even so this experience felt like a huge milestone had been surpassed.

I asked a workmate if he was entertained to which he replied "once you have listened to a couple of guys speaking Chinese for 15 minutes it starts to get a little boring". Since then no one has made fun of my Chinese learning efforts.

That evening I was exhausted mentally but very happy. The feelings I had, the nerves that vanished, the total focus etc. were just like those I have had in past when putting on gloves and a gum shield and sparring with the expectation that I could get a little hurt.

Since that time I have actually tailed off a little, actually speaking to people. I have the confidence to know that I can quietly spend a little time building up more vocabulary and comprehension, then get back into playing the sport...

Blown away (overload)

I have big problem, I want to blog, but can't. I feel like one of those NASA probes that lands on a comet and they get so much data back it takes years to process.

The overload mentioned in the title isn't an overload in language learning, just an overload in insights, new discoveries etc. Language learning has already started to change my life and mind in so many wonderful ways.

This blog isn't really a diary, it is not a record of everything I do and I don't even care about keeping things in the right time line. It is nice to comeback and track some of my thoughts overtime though and sometimes is it good to put a little back by attempting to make suggestions that might help people in similar circumtances to myself.

So much to say ..... where to start ..... OH I know, hang on I will be back.