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Justin M. Stoddard


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Relearning Chinese
May 27, 2012 — 2:01 pm

This post is part of my stated goals mentioned here.

Years ago, I could read, write, listen to, and speak Mandarin Chinese rather well. Well, by “rather well,” I mean at a level which would allow me to survive if I were dropped off in the middle of Beijing at any given moment.

Sadly, those skills have atrophied. It’s common knowledge (at least, conventional wisdom dictates) that language skills are highly perishable, in that they decrease significantly the less you use them. Fortunately, in my case anyway, it seems that once the initial difficult work of learning the basics of the language have been mastered, the process of reacquiring those skills are not incredibly arduous. I gleaned this fact when I traveled to China last August. Though I was extremely rusty and more than a little embarrassed, I found that within a few days in country, I could walk up to a ticket window, make inquiries and purchase rail tickets with little difficulty. I pride myself on this because it’s a well known inside joke among those who know Chinese culture how convoluted and backwards rail travel can be.

Anyway, I’ve been informed that if I wish to advance professionally within my work role, I must increase my Chinese proficiency; which means I need to take the Defense Language Proficiency Test within the next year. I’m not willing to take any classes outside of work to reach this goal, as my free time is severely limited. That leaves me with somewhat limited options.

One of those options is ChinesePod, which is an extensive Chinese podcast offering hundreds of lessons in tiered difficulties. If you are just starting out, you’d be at the basic level. Next is Elementary, then Intermediate, Upper Intermediate, and then Advanced. Also offered are supplementary PDF files which go over all the vocabulary and grammar necessary to understand each lesson.

When I first dove back into this, about two weeks ago, I went immediately for the Intermediate level, which deals more with everyday conversations one might have (or overhear) while visiting or working in China. Unfortunately, I quickly found that what was being said (and how fast it was being said) was above my comprehension skills. The vocabulary was off just enough where I was only catching about 50% of the conversation. To complicate matters, the explanation about what is going on in the conversations is also done in Chinese.

I have a way of approaching the learning of new materials (whatever it may be) which is cognitively dissonant. This is a very common theme throughout my life, and I’ve never been able to figure out how to defeat it. When I approach a new subject (or try to learn something new or more difficult in a subject I know), I always assume that the material will come to me intuitively. That is, I just wade into it and expect to just “pick up” what I need easily. When that doesn’t happen (and it only does about 25% of the time), I get frustrated, embarrassed, and mad at myself for not just “knowing” the material.

This, of course, is crazy. I should know that I won’t just “pick up” the knowledge I want to gain intuitively, and I should further know that getting frustrated about it is just…silly.

But, that’s how I work. It’s always been that way.

I think there are several factors at play, here. I’m certain there’s a bit of the Dunning Kruger effect going on. I go into a subject assuming I’m more knowledgeable than I really am and expect my brain to act accordingly. Again, this is silly. It’s only when you’re quite good at something that you recognize how much you suck at it. It makes no sense to approach a subject you know you’re sub-par at and make the assumption that you’re actually quite good.

Impatience is probably also a factor. I’ve gotten much better at this over the years. I’m able to focus longer and with more clarity than in the past. Some of that has to do with just living life. Most of it has to do with working at it, consciously.

Anyway, all of that is a rather long way of saying that I pretty much suck at Chinese. I’ve been forced by the limits of my comprehension to drop from Intermediate down to Elementary lessons. So, now I’m in the realm of facial features, shopping for shoes, catching a bus, getting directions, etc…

And, that’s fine. It was embarrassing at first, but I’m relearning the fundamentals of the language. There are nuances I’ve forgotten about, sentence patterns I’ve neglected, and vocabulary words I’ve never heard before.

I’ll be back up to Intermediate level in no time.

— Justin M. StoddardComments (1)

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1 Comment
  1. Thanks, I’ll check it out. Like you, I am afraid my ability to speak Mandarin has atrophied shockingly. I think I’m still reasonably fluent as far as is possible with the vocabulary I have, but there’s the rub.. My vocabulary… sucks. Hopefully this can help get that back on track for me again.

    Comment by Steve — May 30, 2012 @ 2:00 am

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