University of Wisconsin–Madison

My Dictionary and I: A Love Story

Hello everyone! Sorry again for the long gap between posts. I finished up midterms a few weeks ago, and just finished the last of my presentations for a while today. Today’s presentation was a big deal for me (although it was only worth 20% of my grade), because I did a group oral presentation in front of my all-native-speaker class. Although I probably only spoke for about 12 minutes total, I spent days prepping, and asking an extremely helpful classmate of mine how to translate my parts word-for-word (it really took quite a long time, poor him). I was very stressed yesterday, thinking I was responsible for about 30 out of 40 slides, but my *awesome* group mates switched everything over last minute, so that I only had to handle about 10. Today when our group presented, I was able to explain everything on my slides (although I was clutching my script for dear life), our group stayed within the time limit, and even our normally-very-stern-and-displeased professor didn’t seem to have any major problems with our presentation. Success! Go ahead, ask me anything about theories concerning classical philanthropic collaborations between corporations and nonprofit organizations. I got this.

This brings me to today’s topic. Chinese.

To start this off, I have to admit, even in English, I’m not particularly eloquent. On this note, I have to apologize for my last post, in which I used the phrase “makes me smile” at least 20 times. I realize that was obnoxious. Now imagine that lack of eloquence… with a language barrier.

The Chinese language and I have the most textbook definition love-hate relationship you could imagine. On one hand, I absolutely love Chinese. Anyone who has talked to me for more than two seconds knows this. Chinese is simply a cool language. It’s tonal, it uses characters instead of a phonetic alphabet, it has the most native speakers of any language on earth,
and I have the physical ability to make all the sounds in the language (unlike Spanish. 7 years of study, and I still can’t roll my rr’s. Sad day). On the other hand, nothing will reduce me to a puddle of helpless despair like a 30 page academic article written in Chinese. Bonus points if the due date is anytime within the next 3 days. And if my electronic dictionary runs out of battery? I will simply implode.

After a bit of reflection, I must say, I’m pretty darn proud of how much Chinese I am able to handle here. Am I fluent? Not really. But I can hold a conversation, and with not-perfect-but-at-least-passable grammar be understood. I can open up a book and maybe not get every word, but definitely get the main idea of things (usually). I can hear a word I don’t know, and remember it well enough to look it up ten minutes after the fact. These are small yet important milestones.

A few weeks ago, I hit a bit of a low point concerning Chinese. According to my dictionary app (aka half the reason I am able to major in Chinese), I have learned approximately 1750 words while here. In my humble opinion, that is quite a lot. However, it seems that when I remember 10 new words, I forget 5 of the old ones. It’s a never ending process of remembering and forgetting, remembering and forgetting. And it seems that even with all those new words, I still come away from every Chinese-reading-practice-class-for-non-native-speakers with at least 30 words I had never seen before. On top of that, recognition of a word in no way means I can pull it out of my brain and write it at a moment’s notice. It also doesn’t necessarily mean I can distinguish whether the word is so informal I should never write it down, or so formal I will sound like a Ming-era scholar if I say it out loud. Some days my Chinese comes out fluent and nice, while some days my American accent and forgetfulness of tones makes things so bad that others can’t really understand me.

The days when no one can understand me are the days when I feel as though I am a bit of a failure in Taiwan. This manifested itself the most a few weeks ago, when I finally broke down and asked my professor (who obtained in PHD in America), if I could take my final exam in English. I had placed my expectations ridiculously high (because, as anyone who has talked to me for more than two seconds knows, I’m a huge perfectionist), and I had failed to live up to my own expectations. Even though my professor assured me that taking the exam in English was no problem, I still felt as though I was the biggest loser at NTU, that I was now forever divided from the brave souls who come to UW to study and who never have the option to take the exam in their native language (you are all impressive. Orz). At this point, I wanted nothing more than to go home, wrap myself up in a blanket, open my laptop to buzzfeed, and renounce all things ever written in non-latin script.

But this, my friends, is not a good idea.

I’ve realized that my language level, very sneakily, has really changed while in Taiwan. This is in no way saying I’m fluent. But for a student who is only in her 3rd year of study, I’m pretty proud of where I am. I was able to test into the highest level of non-native-speaker-Chinese (like ESL class), which is full of heritage speakers and people who have been studying for at least twice as long as I have been. I came to Taiwan not really being able to write traditional characters (Taiwanese and Hong Kong characters are much more difficult to write than Mainland and Singapore ones), and by trial-through-fire I’ve got it mostly figured out. I’ve pretty much figured out Zhuyin (a phonetic system which kind of looks like Japanese hiragana, if you squint a bit), which is the phonetic system of Taiwan that no other Chinese-speaking region uses. I can open up a Taiwanese website and pretty much understand what ever button does, and how to navigate the site. I can understand enough of a presentation to at least be able to ask about a part which I found unclear. And most importantly of all, I have developed the ability to skim. Whereas before I may have had to read every word on the page slowly to figure out the meaning of the words, I can now just skim my eyes over things and get the basic idea. For anyone who has ever attended college, you understand just how vital this skill is.

Best of all, I’ve been developing the ability to “handle life” in Chinese. I can open up the school website and pretty much find what I am looking for. I can think in Chinese when I speak, instead of constantly translating things in my head. I’ve developed an accent, which on good days, is actually pretty-darn-close to the accent of a Taiwanese native speaker. Or at least, not as painfully laowai as it could be. Best of all, I’ve developed quite a few friendships using only Chinese. Not oh-we-are-language-partners-lets-do-homework friendships, but actual, normal, we-enjoy-each-other’s-company-and-have-common-interests-so-lets-be-friends friendships. And all this happened without my even noticing. Imagine that.

The fact is, no, I can’t handle all forms of formal, academic Chinese, nor can I really understand when my friends speak in a string of nothing but slang. But I do have a good hold on the middle of the spectrum. I have the tools to look up words in the Chinese dictionary, and understand the meaning. I finally understand enough that I can pick up a book and guess words I don’t know based on context clues. This definitely counts for something. I no longer get hung up on words like “cat” and “mountain”, but rather words like “the aforementioned” and “cleft palate”. This is progress.

I wish I could be stunned by the beauty of the Chinese language, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. In English, sometime I will stumble upon a sentence that is so beautifully constructed it makes me stop for a minute, and admire the way in which the author was able to take a concept I had always only felt, and give it justice by putting it into words. I still don’t have this ability to really discern beauty in Chinese. Maybe, as a non-native speaker, I will never gain this. But as I continue to study, I hope I can begin to at least grasp at the edges of the realm of understanding (I’m looking at you, classical Chinese class!)

I realize what an amazing opportunity I have here in Taiwan. I am literally surrounded by friends and teachers who are incredibly patient, and who are willing to do just about anything to help me improve (this is because Taiwanese people are one of the best groups of people on the planet- but we’ll save this for another post). I’m also blessed with the privilege of having English, the secondary language of NTU, as my native language, and always have the chance to express myself with my native language and be *mostly* understood. Unlike students from other countries who have to go through a second language to learn a third, I get to skip a step. I really can’t complain at all, in the scheme of things, I have it quite easy.

So in the end, I guess I have to be just a little bit more forgiving towards myself. I’ll probably never reach the peak of the mountain that is fluency, but at least I’m getting closer to the top. And in the meantime, I’m really enjoying the process. I get the same happiness from sitting down and practicing a list of vocabulary words that others get from playing soccer, knitting, or reading a good book. It’s worth doing simply because it is enjoyable. And if I enjoy it, it is worth working through frustrations, in order to improve.

2 thoughts on “My Dictionary and I: A Love Story”

  1. I love this post. It sounds like you are making amazing progress. And, as frustrating and difficult as Chinese can be, I’m guessing you are much more fluent than many of us English speakers who attempt to learn. My advice, from one perfectionist to another, don’t define fluency as perfection. You will never be a native speaker. But… it sounds like your are functioning in Chinese about as well as most of my international student friends in Madison function in English. So, basically, you’ve made it. Now, you can just get a little better in Chinese every day; just like you do in English. By the way, your post was quite eloquent.

  2. Sam
    Visited w/ your Mom in Beaver Dam last week and was fascinated by where life has taken you! Amazing! Carol and I stayed w/Ken and Susan Saturday night. They are so very proud of you and I can see why! Thanks for sharing your adventures—

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