During my recent trip to China, I spent 40 minutes in a taxi to Guilin Airport, and I got an important perspective on language learning - both a kick up the butt and a gentle pat on the head. (No, that was me doing it to myself - not the taxi driver!)
The conversation started off well, and we spoke (in Mandarin) about language learning, working in different countries, the most interesting things I did in Guilin, and so on. I felt good, I understood what he was saying, and was able to communicate my thoughts to him. This lasted about 20 minutes.
Then the conversation moved on to traffic-related topics. We were still doing fine while talking about traffic jams, dangerous driving, accidents, injuries vs deaths, and so on. But it started to go wrong at the time when he was trying to say "driver's licence" - a word I did not know. Eventually he showed me his, I said the closest word I could think of (证书, zhèngshū, certificate/credentials) to confirm.
He agreed, and we were on track again.
But not for long.
At this point I really wasn't following him anymore, and I spent a fair amount of time saying 'ting bu dong' ("I don't understand what you're saying"). My mind started to wonder, and I started thinking about what the various English words that might be relevant here ...
roadworks, tar, pedestrians (yup I know that one), diversions, petrol (know this one too), oil (again), accelerator, brakes, parking (ting che), headlamps (I can take a guess this one), toll gates & toll fees (words that probably end in 'men' and 'fei') ...
This reminded me that to truly become fluent in a language, there really are a lot of words you need to know - there are so many words I don't know, even about cars & traffic (which is just one topic out of millions). So many more.
For a while there I became disheartened. At that stage I started talking to the taxi driver again, and he was saying that one day he would want to learn English too. And I realised that whatever language you learn, you would have to learn all these words.
Sometimes I just find myself convinced that Mandarin is ridiculously difficult, and it would be so easy if I were learning another language. But of course that's not true. Ultimately, if you're learning a new language you have to learn lots of words, sayings, and sentence structures.
So stop complaining and just get on with it.
How committed are you to your studies? How many new words did you learn today? And in the last month?