Keeping it up

You study abroad, you learn a language and you promise to yourself and all the friends you met that you will keep the language up when you get home. You look up when the local language exchanges are and start thinking who you know in your city that speaks Spanish/Chinese/French etc…but in reality

It’s REALLY HARD to keep up a language when you’re not surrounded by it 24 hours a day.

When I left China I sent lots of Chinese books and magazines home, I subscribed to lots of Wechat accounts that regularly post in Chinese and said to myself that I would maintain my Chinese blog, to keep up my essay writing. Have I?

Not really.

Keeping up a language is probably harder than learning a language in the first place…even though you know the language, can get by and communicate with people in that language, when you leave that country, it’s hard to even have the same conversations.

For example a common conversation in China would be when the Didi driver called to ask where I was. This meant I got good at giving directions, explaining which road to turn down and learning the names of roads, supermarkets and schools to guide the driver and tell him where I was (even though I would always be at the spot I selected on the map and he has the map on his phone in front of him).

Switch back to living in the UK, and if I go to a language exchange, directions will probably never come up in conversation, and I’ll never say 你到底在哪儿? (where exactly are you?) in the same way again. So that vocabulary will gradually disappear and get pushed to the back of my mind.

I have read some wechat articles, and have posted one new blog post since coming back, but it’s not enough and I really feel I should be investing more time in my language skills, both Spanish AND Chinese.

How do you maintain your level of language when you’re not living in that language environment?


Let me look that up

I’ve been studying languages for a long time (over 20 years in fact, because I’m still learning my native language English) so I’m pretty used to using dictionaries. I’ve had lots of foreign language dictionaries in the past and still do, from school learners dictionaries, to picture dictionaries, pocket dictionaries and native language dictionaries. So I always have a lot of choices when I meet a new word.

As now I’m focusing on Chinese language, I usually turn to Pleco when I don’t know a word. It’s a very useful app, where if you don’t know how to type the Chinese character, you can draw it and the app will recognise it. Pleco is a very useful tool for all Mandarin learners, and it has some pretty good translations of Chinese idioms too.

Lately, my vocabulary book has gone into overdrive and the words are colour-coded according to which text book they came from: comprehensive, listening, oral, reading and writing.

A few of my teachers have seen me looking up vocabulary on Pleco, and have told me that now I’m at an advanced level, I should be looking up unknown vocabulary in Chinese, not in English because the translations aren’t always right and there are some subtle differences with some words: for example, in English referee and judge are two different words, but in Chinese, 裁判 can be used to describe both of these. It’s also true that some things just don’t have a handy translation, try telling me what 辛苦你了 translates as!

Baidu dictionary app
Baidu dictionary app

This is not the first time this has happened. In our final year of university, in our Spanish translation classes, we were not allowed to use Spanish-English dictionaries, and instead were all made to download the RAE dictionary (the Spanish equivalent of the Oxford dictionary). We all reluctantly did this, but secretly would go home and check Wordreference when completing our homework.

Our teachers are right, looking up a word in an English- foreign language dictionary is a bit lazy. We just look at the first or second word and take it as it is, without question, but when we look up a word in a native language dictionary, it gives us a better understanding of the word and using our brain to figure out the meaning is better than just remembering what it seems like in our own language.

There are some difficulties in looking up words in a native language dictionary: synonyms. Imagine you don’t know the word ‘enormous’, you look it up and the definition says ‘huge’, but you realise you don’t know what ‘huge’ means either. You turn to , find huge only to find that the definition is ‘enormous’ – what do you do then? This is a problem I’ve found when looking things up in my 现代汉语词典. I’m trying though, and as I’m learning over 250 new words each week (yes I’m keeping track this semester), as my vocabulary expands, I’ll be able to use the Chinese – Chinese dictionary better than I am doing now.

What do you think about looking up unknown words? Do you prefer to use your own language to understand, or do you use a native speaker’s dictionary?

Is the pen dead? Mine definitely isn’t.

I recently read an article about how pens, paper and handwriting are all dead in British society, at least. The figures are shocking, reading about how few young people have written a letter, but even with the increase of technology, this isn’t true for me. Maybe I’m a special case, but I can’t see me putting my pens down anytime soon (neither can these hard working students in the library).

At the library
At the library

As I study Chinese, it’s incredibly important for me to keep on top of my handwriting, not only for the weekly dictation spelling tests we have, but also for character recognition and ingraining new characters into my memory. There are many characters that look similar 人 and 入, which look alike but also ones like 休/体, 偷/愉 and semi symmetrical ones like 部/陪, Then there are the really complicated characters like 藏 or 囊,which are usually traditional characters that even China hasn’t been able to simplify.

I find the most effective method of remembering them is by writing them, from 1-10 times on neat squared paper. As I’m on a 20hr/week intensive language course, I have over 100 new pieces of vocabulary to learn a week, some of which are Chinese idioms (成语) which consist of four characters. That’s not even including my homework, notes in class and writing my diary. It’s safe to say,I use a lot of pens and paper here in China.

After spending 20p on each gel ink pen, that I would finish in a couple of weeks, I decided this was quite expensive. I saw refill ink cartridges in the stationary shop which were 10p each, or a box of 20 for £1.60, At first I thought I doubted I would use a whole 20 pens worth of ink, but then I realised I probably would use all of them, so bought the box. Who said the pen was dead?

Another one of my goals for this time in China is to learn some 练笔,joined up handwriting – in Chinese. At the moment, I write like a 7 year old Chinese student, clearly marking each stroke of the character, but this takes time and my Chinese friends don’t write like this. Sometimes my teachers comments are also in cursive Chinese, so I want to learn how to write it in order to read it too. It will save me time when writing down points in listening class and hopefully not affect the beauty of my printed characters.

Cursive Chinese
At the library

How often do you write with a pen and paper?

Taekwondo Class

At Zhejiang Normal University’s fresher’s fayre, I signed up to a lot of societies and clubs. I was determined to join a martial arts or sports club and when I saw a table with strong looking guys, dressed in white martial artsy robes and black belts, I was grabbed a pen and signed the form. I didn’t even know what martial art is was, but they were really friendly guys and said they’d teach me 跆拳道 for self-defence and fighting.

Despite it being the most expensive society at this university, for me the fees weren’t expensive at all, for a whole year of classes (3 hrs a week), a set of taekwondo clothes and a pair of special taekwondo shoes, it cost £36. I had my first class last Saturday and really enjoyed the new experience.

At first it was a bit muddled, with over 70 students crammed into the hall, we were split into two groups, I chose the group that didn’t have a mirror on the wall so I wouldn’t have to see my classmates staring at me [I’m the only foreigner doing taekwondo*]. We did some running games to warm up and some stretches, for the record, Chinese people aren’t all as stretchy as you may think, none of them could do the splits.

We then stood in lines and I was on the third row, I soon realised I’d have to somehow infiltrate the first row, because with the other class behind me, I couldn’t hear the teacher** clearly. We practiced the starting position and simple backwards and forwards movements, after the first water break I rushed to the front row (and confused the girl who’s place I’d taken, she didn’t complain though). The taekwondo instructor told us that each time we take a step during training, we must shout ‘HA’, not a haha laugh, more of a ‘don’t mess with me huh!’ sound, to express and remove the sadness and stress from our bodies and lives.

Me at Taekwondo class

Taekwondo class isn’t simply about training to fight or self defence, from the first class I’ve also learnt that team work and cooperation are values that are highly stressed during class. We did a lot of work in pairs – like holding the padded ‘foot’ out so we could practice high kicks and sitting on each others feet when doing sit ups. At the end of class, we even gave each other massages – pats on the back, using feet to massage the calves and standing on each others’ quadriceps [except my partner was bigger than me, so didn’t want to stand on me, so I returned the favour].

I think throughout the term, we will learn new skills and as we change partners, I can meet more of my classmates and make new friendships. I’m not sure if there will be any chances to enter competitions [or if I’ll want to] but I’m very keen to continue learning this new sport.

*but strangely not the only girl, the class was 90% girls, with only a handful of boys

**should I call him teacher, or master, or fellow classmate? still unsure

Ridiculous Texts

I’ve been studying Chinese for over four years now, and have used a variety of text books. Some of the texts are really interesting and give us students a real insight into Chinese culture and history – one of my favourites was about 武则天, an evil empress from China’s history. But today I want to talk about three texts which have just been ridiculous, texts that I probably will never forget. I’ve ranked them in order of ridiculousness, and am sorry if I ruin the surprise for any of you currently studying Chinese.

3. God’s punishment for the golf playing Rabbi

This text is from an oral text book and it tells the story of how one day, there is a Rabbi, who love to play golf. One Sabbath*, all he wants to do is play golf, and he thinks that as it’s the Sabbath, nobody will know if he goes to play 9 holes (*Jews are supposed to rest at home on the Sabbath). He goes out, and of course, nobody is on the golf course to catch him out, except suddenly on the third hole, an angel spots him and goes to God to tell on him. God says he will punish the Rabbi, so for the remaining holes, the Rabbi plays excellently, nearly all his shots are holes in one, so he plays another 9 holes to complete the course. The angel goes back to God and asks what kind of punishment is this? He’s getting great results. Then God says to the angel, “Aha, he won’t be able to tell anybody about his excellent round of golf because they’ll know he’s broken the rules by going to play on the Sabbath. Not being able to share your happiness with other people is a punishment”

I like this anecdote, but I just think it’s a bit out of place in a Chinese text book, since religions aren’t practiced the same way as they are in other countries, and I don’t think there is a big Jewish community in China, nor many golf courses.

2. Buying a banana apple

This story was from my first year and was a very simple dialogue about a Canadian student 林娜, buying fruit in a market in China. She asked for a kilo of bananas, half a kilo of apples and a kilo of banana apples. Wait, what, banana apples yes, you read correct. We were told that in China, there is a fruit called “banana apple”, which looks like an apple but tastes like a banana. I’ve been in China for over 6 months in total now, and have yet to find one. When I searched on Baidu (the Chinese Google), apart from photos of apples and bananas beside each other, I found pictures showing yellowish apples as below. Until I eat one, I refuse to acknowledge that they actually exist!

Banana Apple
Banana Apple

1. Is that really our daughter?

This by far must be the most ridiculous text I’ve come across so far. It’s from a text book I used last time I was in China. A couple with straight, blonde hair, small (one lidded) eyes and white skin have a baby. They take the baby girl home, and one day, the Mum says to the baby “are you really our daughter? You have such dark skin, black curly hair and big (double lidded) eyes”. The Mum isn’t convinced, so goes back to the hospital to check. She meets the nurse who delivered the baby, who realises that on that day, there were two baby no. 6’s born. She gives the white couple the address of the other couple who’s baby was no.6. They go to this family’s home and a black lady with curly black hair opens the door, holding a small white, blond baby girl. They realise that their babies have been switched at birth, so meet another day and swap toys, clothes and babies.

I like the variation of our texts, as sometimes learning Chinese, you find yourself always talking about Chinese food and being a foreigner in China (as well as the basic “where are you from, what do you study, WOW your Chinese is so good, how long have you been in China). But sometimes, the texts are a bit strange. Have you had any strange texts in your Chinese text books, or do you remember reading any of these texts yourself?