Monday, October 22, 2012

My Experiences Studying Foreign Languages

My large public high school in Sparks, Nevada required a minimum of 2 foreign language credits. Unfortunately we were only given three choices, Spanish, German or French. I went with Spanish, thinking it would be more useful to me in the long run. I stuck with it for 3.5 years then I got burned out (on both Spanish and high school in general). During this time none of my Spanish teachers stood out in my mind as actually caring very much about the subject or the students. One teacher in particular, Mr. C. relied way too heavily on videos. We watched "Balto" and "Dead Poets Society" dubbed in Spanish twice during the same year (bleh). He was also crazy about a teeny-bopper pop star named Fey. To this day I still get Media Naranja stuck in my head. (I provided the link in case you enjoy watching horrible train wrecks... but be warned it is a most vile poison.)

Now I study Mandarin Chinese. I've been on this path for about 9 years now (starting around the same time that I decided to get serious about a career in tea). I took two "Conversational Chinese" classes during those early years. They were the type of classes where, for $99, a handful of newbies, and one less-than-stellar teacher are mixed together for eight weeks in a tiny community collage room with plastic chairs and a dry-erase board. By the end of these classes most of us could say Ni Hao, count to 3, and read pinyin dialogs without actually knowing what we were saying.

After this, I collected many Mandarin books, and flash cards (which I sometimes even looked at!) and occasionally borrowed Pimsleur's (boring) CDs from the Seattle Public Library to listened to while driving around town. Occasionally some small bits of Mandarin would stick in my brain but I was getting hungry for a better way.

With the help of some birthday money, I paid the relatively pricy tuition needed to begin the Mandarin 101 course offered by the (now extinct) Seattle Language Academy in Fremont. This was really just a glorified version of those same Conversational Chinese courses I'd taken a few years earlier. The teachers struggled with lazy students, questions that brought them way off topic, and students who simply could not wrap their brains (and tongues) around the pronunciation of Mandarin.

Despite these distractions, things were getting better. I practiced whenever possible and I was getting better at pronunciation. My first tutor, Shiuwen (from Floating Leaves) was a wonderful teacher. Before she had a tea house, we would meet at a downtown coffee shop, drink tea and chat. After Floating Leaves opened in Ballard, I attended some of her Mandarin language nights. These were great fun but I became more and more convinced that one-on-one study with a dedicated tutor was the best style for me.

It was around this time (2005) that I made up my mind to visit Taiwan. I had an amazing trip and found the "full immersion" incredibly helpful. By the end of the trip I could really feel those language synapses firing. Mandarin just came easier for me while in Taiwan.

After I returned to Seattle I started hunting for a new tutor. Through Craigslist, I found Danlie. She was Taiwanese, and she was awesome. We talked in Mandarin about music and tea while hanging out at Miro, or Mr Spot's Chai House. I took lots of notes and felt like I was making slow but measurable progress.

After Danlie moved away, I had two other wonderful teachers. About four years ago, my infant daughter and I would meet up with Angela (a piano player from Beijing) at Teahouse Kuan Yin and I'd practice my Mandarin for as long as my daughter's patience would hold out. After Angela moved away I met Cindy (also from Taiwan). My daughter and I really enjoyed our weekly lessons with Cindy for nearly two years.

Those days were definitely the pinnacle for me and Mandarin. I spent hours writing traditional Chinese characters, I traveled four more times to Taiwan to buy tea, eat amazing food, and study tea culture, and I listened to lessons on Chinesepod everyday.

Lately, with two young kids, two jobs, and many responsibilities around my home I haven't had enough time (or money) for Mandarin. This has resulted in what I fear to be "major backsliding." I still try to practice whenever I get a chance... but it seldom seems to actually happen. What I need is a private tutor who will come to my house and chat with me while I take care of kids, do laundry, and make dinner. Oh... and he or she will have to be OK with working for chá instead of dinero.

What languages do you study? How does my story compare to yours? Please leave me a comment or link to your own blog posts on this subject. Xiexie!


Gingko said...

This is very interesting and inspiring! I always want to learn Spanish, but there has always been other priorities in life.

I think immersing oneself in the language environment and making it a routine of life is really important. In China we started English class since middle school, and we took GRE which is full of big words. But when I first came to the States, I felt I could barely speak any useful English. The learning environment is better for the younger generation in China. My little brother watched US presidential debates to polish his English :-)

William said...

Thanks for sharing Brett. Learning Chinese has been one of the most challenging experience in my life, and I'm sure it'll keep me busy for a decade or more to get a good level. The hardest part was the beginning: this point at which the more you learn, the more you discover new difficulties.

Even more important than knowing Chinese, it taught me that one should never give up because something looks too hard. Difficulty is only something from the mind, while you think you're stagnating, you are learning. Keep up the good work Brett!


Steph said...

How wonderful, all of these language opportunities! I'm looking forward to my first trip to Taiwan with Shiuwen this coming Spring.