Sunday, April 17, 2011

Progress Report

I am 2/3 of the way through my ‘spring semester’ here in Beijing, and also about 2/3 of the way through the TV series that I’ve been using as my main course material throughout.

With this perspective, I can confidently say that I made the right choice in dropping out of ICLP (that sounds really bad, doesn’t it? for the record I never even started attending classes there this year!) and coming back to Beijing to study independently.

For one thing, I know that the content that I’m learning here is useful, and that I would have not come in contact with much of it had I stayed in Taipei. A lot of the credit goes to 《蜗居》, the drama I’ve been watching, providing a perfect mix of vocabulary: 70% is common colloquial dialogue, much of it dealing with everyday topics like houses, family, and money; 20% is literary or flowery narration; and the remaining 10% is business-related conversation involving members of the intelligentsia. 《蜗居》, which has been called “a series that slipped through SARFT’s [China’s media regulatory body] guidelines” ( is also a candid glimpse at modern social problems in the metropolises of China: official corruption, sky-high housing prices, and the widespread mistress phenomenon. In my own daily life, I’ve also been forced to deal with some problems that would either not have come up or would likely have been solved using English were I in Taipei: the details of housing rental; looking for part-time jobs; bedbugs (?); and the like.

As expected, I’ve found that setting my own pace makes my learning more efficient. At 30-60 new words per night, I’m slow (at least in comparison to the programs I’ve been at), but I’m thorough – including review, I’ve watched every episode at least five times. A key result is that, when I check back on my mastery of the episodes with less new vocabulary, I can get English-to-Chinese translation right as much as 80+% of the time. Perhaps even more important, I can remember context.

Less daily vocabulary (and no daily tests) has also allowed me to feel free to really put my notebook to good use. (Thanks, Light Fellowship: I’m on my second now, left by Trent when he went home in August.) Along with my keys, my phone, and my wallet, I also make sure I’m carry that notebook, and a pen, whenever I go out the door. When I run into a word I don’t know, or find that I’m struggling to say something, I’ll jot it down and either look it up or ask my tutor to help me with it later. It’s not perfect – after a conversation, I’ll often be completely unable to recall what tripped me up or what words I didn’t understand – but it’s been massively helpful. On my most recent page I have: “337. Health and Preventative Vaccine Clinic; 338. an article about...; 339. to lie around in bed and not get up; 340. pentagon; 341. router; 342. pictures of [person].”

I’m also has some slow progress at listening to the news – which, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is an entirely different animal than everyday conversation, to an extent that most people who haven’t studies Chinese or a similar language just can’t imagine. I’ve done this mostly by way of listening most nights, originally to a BBC podcast and more recently (when BBC slashed their radio programming in a ton of foreign languages, including Chinese) to the nightly Network News Broadcast. (The latter is state-run television, and can be so boring that lately I’ve stopped listening in favor of thinking of ways to kill the producers... I think I need to find something new.) I’m getting better at understanding the news, and building my practical vocabulary in this area too. (Guess who knows how to say “Cote D’Ivoire,” “Libyan militants,” and “the International Atomic Energy Agency”?)

All of that is to say, in comparison with what could/would have been, I’m doing pretty alright. In comparisons to my own goals, though, I have to say that I’m still falling far short.

 - Reading and writing: I don’t particularly care. I can, and will, work on these when I get back to Yale.

 - Listening: I still need to focus every ounce of my attention on every conversation, and I can be tripped up by the most innocuous things. For me, it’s not as simple as having learned a word and then being able to pick it out when it’s spoken. No. I need to have learned it; and then I need to hear it in context; and then I need to hear it again; and then I need to hear it spoken fast or with an accent; and then I need to hear it again... And only when I’ve heard it over and over again am I able to pick it out from among the words I don’t know, or in dialogue with an interlocutor who speaks fast or with an accent or unclearly; only when that word has really worked its way into my marrow am I able to count it as one of the pillars on which I build my understanding of a given dialogue, and around which I listen for new words. I am finding that this is a very, very slow process – particularly in a tonal language with so many regional accents and so few distinctive syllables. (“mei2” can mean petroleum, media, not, eyebrow, and I’m sure many more.) I can understand most of what’s said in《蜗居》but only about 30% of another series, 《奋斗》 (in the latter, they speak faster and the sound quality isn’t quite as good); I can understand some news reports but often can’t even keep up with the speed of delivery of words I already know; there are times when the simplest things are said to me and my mind just goes blank.

 - Speaking: Improving slowly but surely, but whenever I spend a significant amount of time with Chinese friends I discover that I struggle to express myself far too often. I am still convinced that speaking will follow from listening – the surest way for my tongue to master a phrase is for my ears to become familiar with it – but I’ve also just recently started working on some tactics that I hope will get better results. As I noted once or twice before in this blog, and has been pointed out to me a few times recently, I need to reject the feeling that because I can say a few things fluently, then I can say everything fluently. I need to backpedal to higher ground and start allowing myself to speak slower, louder, and with more thought behind my words. Accuracy first, fluidity second: I shouldn’t be putting the cart before the horse just because I enjoy overestimating myself, or because I’m insecure about sounding like a foreigner (which I will anyway, probably for my whole life).

And that’s where I am right now. I don’t expect any massive breakthroughs in the next month in a half (though, who knows? I may surprise myself), so consider this the authoritative, if tentative, summary of the results of my spring semester.

For now, it’s into the breach once more.

1 comment:

  1. So wonderfully impressive, Ethan! I've saved this post for later use / reference. Superb.

    "Perhaps even more important, I can remember context."

    YES! I want to use this word more in Light Fellowship pre-departure...Also, you're welcome for the notebook. Thanks for using not one but two! =)