My Chinese studies all started with martial arts. My teacher in Atlanta, Allen Pittman, had studied with Chen Yun Ching in Taiwan in the 70's. My friend and I realized he was still alive. A friend's father agreed to phone him for us; then we communicated by fax, and arranged a visit. Considering Mr. Chen knew little English, we thought anything we could learn would be helpful.
We took a Chinese I class at the community college, and found a college student who tutored us. She drilled us on pronunciation- a good thing. At least if our vocabulary was small, people understood what we did say. It also allowed us to use a dictionary and pronounce words correctly.
Our visit was a success, but I think our Chinese failed us. We took our clothes to the laundry, and the clerk ended up calling the hotel to find out what we wanted. I think the surprise of strangers visiting the laundry was more the issue than our language. There were very few Caucasians around. Once we left Taipei for Taichung, we only saw eight Caucasians in two weeks.
With the help of Mr. Chen's translator, we started setting up a teaching tour in the United States. I needed to know more Chinese! So, more tutoring sessions, listening to language CD's, and eavesdropping on conversations in restaurants. I could visit our Chinatown and have brief conversations. My tutor told me she shamed an American-born Chinese because my Chinese was better than his. I also worked with a professor from a local university, to provide more language practice.
We have continued our exchange of visits with Mr. Chen. We have been to Taiwan two more times and he has been to the US twice. He is returning to the US in 2010.
My skills are about those of a three year old. Studying Chinese is fun. I don't think additional Chinese skills will help significantly in my martial arts training, but I like learning the language. It is satisfying to visit Taiwan and not feel totally lost. I feel comfortable touring around Taiwan (dictionary in hand!).
It's tough being a self-guided student, though. The encouragement of language-learning bloggers, the expatriates living in Taiwan and China, and my fellow Twitter tweeters has encouraged me. I am now using Anki for SRS. It is easier and more accessible than cards. Our library has an ESL program that provides speaking practice. I rearranged my lunchtime to talk with my Chinese co-workers. I am using more language immersion, and purposely listening to things beyond my language skills to get a better sense of the language. Sometimes I can tell what it's about even if I don't get the details.
I make up stories about what goes on in my life, as if I were talking to a Chinese friend. "I went to Chinatown last week. There was a Chinese college professor there. She had brought her students to the market. The girls liked the candy. Some of the students bought tea. All the students thought the freezer area was icky. I don't think they learned much at the store." When I translate it back to English, it's not too bad. Maybe I have progressed and now can speak like a five year old! I look forward to speaking something closer to my own age level.
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