Monday, July 26, 2010

There are lots of Chinese people

Okay, the title of this post is somewhat obvious, there are a lot of Chinese people and in at least three cities and a bunch I towns I frequent it is quite easy to get casual language practice, quite easy to find Chinese people to listen to and with a bit more effort quite easy to find longer conversations. Not so easy as living in a country that speaks your target language of course but much much easier than some languages I guess.

I have been a little quiet here recently but have posted a lot posts on my learning Thai blog, Thai being the second language I have seriously attempted I can focus much better on telling the story of how I learn a language and refine those things that seemed to have worked with learning Chinese. This blog is going to focus more on what happens next after I can cope with everyday conversation (a bit more and a bit less in some cases). I will also deal with what happens as I try "normalising" what I have learned in Chinese with more mainstream leaning, I have decided to take the HSK4 (probably early next year but I haven't checked out the times when I can take it for sure). for now though this post is about yesterday. I emphasize input a lot because I think input is what you spend most of your time doing doing when learning a language....

A fairly lucky day for Chinese practice but you make your own luck to some extent, another rambling brain dump I am afraid but it shows what I do.

Yesterday I went shopping in Bath with my wife, no set plans for language learning, and I have mostly been in Bristol recently. Eventually we wanted a coffee (or similar) so went to a chocolate/coffee shop. This place serves an excellent hot chocolate (forget anything you mostly think you know about hot chocolate, they also do a good mocha coffee), it is also somewhere where about a year ago I had a most excellent and alas too short language learning discussion with a Belgian, a Frenchman, a Malaysian Chinese and another Chinese girl from Shanghai. Today the shop had four (yes 4) Chinese staff. One of which was the girl from Shanghai (after a while Asian people don't all look the same and vice-versa I suspect) she seems to have become a manager there. This gave me the opportunity for a little Chinese chat, nothing spectacular (I was with someone who doesn't speak any Chinese) but everything helps, different accents, different ways of saying the same thing etc.

A little later and my wife wants to look for something I am not interested in so we split up for about 20mins, left to my own devices I go to a Chinese medicine shop I know but the shop is closed there is a sign saying they have moved. I hear Chinese (Bath is a city that has a lot of tourists you often hear Chinese). There is a party of Chinese tourists, some guy is talking to them loudly so I go up and listen. Nothing very interesting, they are talking about lunch apperently the guy (tour leader?) is going to take them to Hai bao for food. Not sure what he means, Ocean something probably, I think of Hai main bao bao (Sponge Bob Square pants). I assume Hai bao is a translation of something English, but don't know. As they march off I walk with them (why not?). I try not to look too obtrusive, perhaps some one will talk to me. They don't walk far, going into a shopping mall and up an escalator and the puzzle is solved, hai bao is there in big Chinese characters, "Ocean Treasure" a Chinese all you can eat buffet restuarant (not very authentic food for the tourists doh!!).

I am in the right place for the medicine shop, these places are everywhere (although fewer since the recession) the staff always speak Mandarin because they get their Chinese Doctors from mainland China and the staff often have to translate for the Doctors (all of their recruitment pages on-line for the various different medicine shops stipulate that the staff must speak good Mandarin (do your homework ;)). Anywhere I have gone in the UK I can usually get at least a little practice in a medicine shop, they are often expensive but you don't have to buy anything, and if you speak Mandarin they often forget the "hard sell". I find out if they have Tiger Balm, how much it is etc. No I don't need it now I have enough but I used to buy it from them where they were previously (the guy behind the counter is new to me though). They have other customers and I have run out of time....

Later on we are in clothes shop, my wife goes to try something on, I let her know I will be back shortly, opposite this shop, there is a mobile phone accessory shop, via a complicated set of coincidences (can't explain all it would take too long) I suspect a Chinese student I knew (I met her and her Chinese finance when they were working in a cafe and we met up a few times last year to practice English and Chinese) has been working there. There are a Chinese couple in the shop, I haven't prepared but say something along the lines of I am looking for an old friend and I think she works there. No problem but apparently she left a while ago and is now studying in Cardiff.

More shopping, and we have lunch (Spanish), a little later and time to go but we have one more coffee in a Starbucks. I draw the shortstraw and whilst my wife finds a table I join the queue, two Chinese people are ahead of me youngish guy and girl, haven't been in England long judging by their clothes, and manner. I spend a little time listening to their conversation, the bits I can hear are fairly simple, they are mostly talking about things in the coffee shop. They don't buy their drinks together, as she leaves to take her drink to the table I start talking with the guy, how long has he been in England (three months) I compliment him on his pronunciation (more English than American which is unusual) he asks me about my Chinese etc. We move into English, some people would say you should never do this but I tend to see communication as a two way thing, he has been in England for a few months and is going to be starting an Engineering masters degree soon, he wants to practice speaking some English.

I am going to try following a few tours of Chinese tourists when I have a chance, should be interesting. I was genuinely looking for someone in the mobile phone shop but if not I could have made up a name and pretended I was (they will just tell me that X has never worked there). I could have asked the Chinese couple in the coffee shop the time (the time in China that is) I have done that about twenty times before and so far no one has asked me why I need to know the time in China even though some have stopped to chat. None of these are long conversations, that can take a little more luck or planning.

When I get home I pull out my Ipod touch and look up a few things that I wasn't sure about, for example I heard the Chinese girl pointing at something and asking in Chinese if it meant xiao fei. the guy confirmed in Chinese that it did. I was puzzled, I assumed she meant tip, Chinese visitors are often worried about tipping but when I got to where there were, none of the signs had anything about tips (service charges or gratuities). When I looked up the word I realized it wasn't xiao3fei4 but xiao1fei4 (to be fair it is harder to eavesdrop when there is a lot of background noise) I should have worked it out though (we become blinded by what we expect), the word "consume" is bound to have been on one of those signs.

Sometimes when moving through a city I don't go five minutes between each occasion I hear Mandarin being spoken by someone. NOW THERE IS A THOUGHT.

3 comments:

Greg said...

Chris, thanks for another interesting post - I enjoyed almost seeing into your mind, and how you plan your interactions. The large number of Chinese people is one of the reasons that I chose to study Chinese in the first place - because I knew it would be easy to find language exchange partners. I look forward to your next post.

Tom Dinan said...

Hi Chris,
I totally agree with you. I live in California which has a very diverse population of people from the opposite side of the Pacific Rim. I started studying Mandarin because many of the Chinese speakers at my place of work start having discussions in Mandarin and I grew tired of wondering what they were saying. Anyhow, the point is, in the United States (and in England) you don't have to travel far to find Chinese speakers. Why spend money to travel to China (or Taiwan) when you can learn it all from where you are?

Chris said...

Cheers for the comments, yes the large number of Mandarin speakers worldwide is a definite positive side to learning the language.