Wednesday, August 5, 2009

It takes two (or more) to tango

One of the great things about learning Chinese is that you get to speak with Chinese people - who are usually very flattered that you're learning their language. On many occasions I've said 'nǐ hǎo' (hello - 你好) to someone, and they've replied (in English): "Oh my God ... your Chinese ... it's excellent."

It's nice to be appreciated.

Then you learn a few more phrases - and you can even manage a short conversation about 'hello' and 'where is the toilet?'. And (other than stumbling a little with your tones) they can understand you - and you run towards the little door at the back of the restaurant where they point you.

It's nice to be understood.

But you'd like to speak Chinese better than that. Right? You'd like to be able to have actual conversations with people. And although you can make yourself understood with the basics, when they talk back to you, you're immediately lost.

You blame it (internally) on the speed of their talking, and your lack of skill with tones. But that's not it. It's your vocabulary - you just don't know enough words.

You know how to say 'nǐ hǎo' (你好), but you have no idea when they say 'zěn me yàng' (怎么样) - which (although it literally means 'how is it going?') is close enough to 'hello' in general conversation. It quickly reaches the point where it's no longer good enough to know just one word for things - you have to learn more, especially if those variants are in common usage.

It's very nice to understand.

So build some synonym-based WordPacks for yourself ...
  • How many ways do you have for saying toilet (or bathroom, or lavatory, or ...)?
  • How many ways can you agree with someone (yes, or correct, or good, or ...)?
  • How many words do you know which mean restaurant? Or hotel? Or a meal?
In the beginning, it doesn't make a difference. But - as I realise all too often - if you want to get past that, you need more than one word for everything.

After all, it does take two to tango.

Goodbye. (zài jiàn) 再见
See you next time. (xià cì jiàn) 下次见
Until we meet again. (zài huì) 再会
Take care. (màn zǒu) 慢走

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