One of my requests as part of going to China was to learn Mandarin. Especially conversational Mandarin. I had been teaching myself some Mandarin using textbooks and Duolingo, but the problem was that I didn’t get my pronunciation right. I could tell that when I heard myself back. I had a pretty thick American accent. The result of it was that I mostly focused on learning Chinese characters, a little bit of the sentence structure and some standard phrases.
I was reminded of how poor my pronunciation was when I was in Haikou, Hainan in 2019 and asked for the check: 买单 (Mǎidān). Even in that context, I was holding my phone with the WeChat pay QR code standing at the bar, they had no idea what I was saying. Apparently, my tones and emphasis were all wrong. Now, I’m not sure they weren’t trying to make a point to a crazy foreigner (疯狂的外国人), it can’t have been that complicated to figure out what I wanted, but it drove the point home. I needed help.
For the last week I’ve been taking a 1hr lessons. Every day at 12:30pm, including Saturday and Sunday. I’m not sure I’m going to keep this up for my whole stay, but I figured that during my quarantine time I need all the distraction I can get. The lessons take place over Zoom. My teacher, Lancy, is located in Kunming, a city in southern China. She lived in New York for a while but returned during COVID when New York locked up to be with her family. As far as I can tell she was studying there. Her English is pretty good but it’s clear she is not a native speaker. Quite often we teach each other but hey her English is infinitely better than my Mandarin.
All the interactions are virtual. The face-to-face lessons happen over zoom and our out-of-class interaction happens over WeChat. That’s how I get my homework assignments and that’s how I submit my exercises. Yes, it does feel like I’m back in grade school. Even more so because the material she uses is literally targeted at kindergarten pupils. I get to learn words like baby, fox, rabbit, house, stand up, homework, etc. all accompanied by toddler cartoons. The focus right now isn’t so much on the words yet, it’s on simple sounds and their pronunciation, but these baby words are new to me and didn’t appear in my Duolingo vocabulary. It’s not all baby stuff, Lancy does add details, context and cross connections when I ask for them. I think she figured out that’s how I learn, by placing things in context, so she started to provide more of that which I appreciate.
Right now, all the lessons are focused on Pinyin and its pronunciation. Pinyin is a latinized version of Mandarin that represents the sounds of the characters. It’s easier to learn for Westerners and it’s also how you input Chinese characters on a keyboard on your phone. This is all aligned with my priorities. I asked Lancy to focus on spoken Mandarin first, followed by reading. In the end I want to be able to tell my taxi driver where to go, or order food in a restaurant. Writing the characters by hand, the calligraphy, is less important to me because when I write them, I’ll be using my phone or computer and Pinyin is the input method of choice there.
I had my first test yesterday (Sunday). I passed with flying colors, but I was kind of nervous about it. I was practicing words right up to the lesson. There are still a bunch of words that do not want to stick to my memory. I added these to my Pleco flash card collection so I can practice them on my phone.