One thing about learning Chinese is that, for me anyway, it often throws me for a loop. Just when I start to feel like I am making some progress – perhaps even getting pretty good at it – something happens that makes it unequivocally clear that I really don’t know Chinese at all.
I had one of those experiences last night when I started to do my homework for the week.
For this level (Integrated Chinese, Level 1 Part 2) I bought the audio CD’s so that I could listen to the dialogues and vocabulary. The textbook dialogues are written out in the textbook, so I can read along and follow them, but the workbook dialogues are not written out. I just have to listen to the CD and then answer the questions in the workbook, based on what is said in the dialogue.
So yesterday I started in on the homework, feeling pretty good about myself. Then I got to the part where I am supposed to listen to the workbook dialogue and answer the questions. I put the CD into my CD drive, fired up Media Player, and listened to the dialogue – and I couldn’t understand one thing. Well, that’s not strictly true. I got “ni hao.” I felt a little panicked at that point. I should be able to do this! I listened to it again. I paused the audio, backed up, listened again. And again. And again. After listening maybe twenty times or more, I kind of got the gist of what was being said, but I still can’t understand every word and get the details. Wow. I’ve put in so many hours studying, and I still can’t understand this simple dialog. It’s discouraging.
Not long ago, I read Tom’s post over at Seeing Red in China titled “It’s Easy to Learn Chinese – Really.” He said (in a comment to the main post) that for him reading and writing are more difficult than speaking and listening. For me, it is just the opposite. I can read and write some Chinese now (writing is definitely harder, especially just remembering how to write characters without any reference), but speaking and listening – especially listening – are really hard. I try to translate in my head as the speaker is talking, so I get lost. On top of that, about half the time, maybe more, I just don’t hear the word correctly. I get “ji” confused with “zhi,” “xi” confused with “shi,” “qi” confused with “chi” and on and on. I don’t hear the tones correctly, so then I don’t know if the speaker means “那”or “哪,” “十”or “是”or “事.” I should be able to tell from the context, but I’m not there yet. Chinese has so many homonyms, and when I hear a word, every possibility runs through my head – was it this, that, what? I think if I am ever going to be able to learn how to understand spoken Chinese, I am going to have to listen to a lot of dialogues, starting from the simplest. I clearly don’t have the listening skills now to jump in at the Level 1, Part 2 dialogues and understand them – but I will get there.