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...


Mashhood said...


你的中文越來越好! 你要好好加油!



John said...

Good story. Makes me feel more motivated.

Edwin said...

Congrat! What a wonderful experience! Keep it up!

Anonymous said...


I also feel motivated. Thank you sharing your experiences with us. :)

Brendan Lawlor said...

The nerves are something every language student can relate to. Your success in this encounter is a great deal rarer! Well done indeed. You must still be walking on air. It's great motivation indeed.

Learn - Chinese said...

You can use a Chinese Pronunciation Dictionary on Learn Chinese site. It can help you to pronounce a Chinese word or Chinese sentence.

barry said...

Excellent stuff Chris, highly inspiring.

Jin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jin said...

It could not be more happy to know someone is learning Mandarin. I am a Chinese who is currently in Canada. I have very similar experience in my English learning and I am still working on the improvement. if any of you guys want me to correct your Chinese blog and you correct my English blog, please feel free to let me know and I would be more than happy to know you. I would like to leave my contact so you guys can email me at

Enjoy you studying.


Anonymous said...

Great story. I can appreciate the sensation of seeming to speak so slowly. Meeting with frequently a native mandarin speaker is the answer of course. I am a great believer in utilising Tang poetry.