TILAT #9: Learning the lingo

Seems these posts invariably begin with a comparison to Surat. Why break the habit of a blogpostseriestime? In small-town Thailand you soon realise that you have two options – either learn to speak some basic level of Thai or resign yourself to regularly dining from the shelves of 7-11. Given my love of Thai cuisine it’s little surprise that I chose the first route and within a couple of months could hold my own in many a situation (thanks to some help and prodding from a very good friend). The major factor spurring this rapid acquisition was necessity – Surat Thani being a small, non tourist-oriented town there were few English speakers around. Speak Thai or go hungry, that simple.

Enter Taichung. Making the transition from sleepy Surat to a bustling metropolis of several million citizens was extremely difficult but the passage was eased somewhat by the westernisation of Taiwan’s major population centres. Despite frequenting all manner of cafes, bars, supermarkets, banks, etc. I was able to forego learning a single word on Chinese for three months. Seriously, not a jot. My boss would help with any sticky situations and I had Taiwanese friends to translate the ephemera of everyday life for me.

Time after time I told myself I’d learn, I’d get round to it, but excuse piled upon excuse until in my mind the task took on some kind of mythical, Herculean proportions. Mandarin was some unscaleable peak, the Everest of language, a trial I simply wasn’t trained to overcome.

Then I actually tried it.

It started with a website called Memrise which I stumbled upon via an article on why now is a good time to learn Chinese. It sounded like little more than a game, which I suppose it is really. The site introduces you to Chinese characters (or vocabulary from many other languages) one at a time, presenting you with  mnemonics and visuals to aid your memory, pronounciation sound clips, the history of the character and other titbits. After a couple of exposures you’re tested – either you’re shown a character and choose from four translation, shown an English word or phrase and choose from four characters or are simply shown the character and must type the English translation. So far, so basic – here’s the hook. The learning takes place in the guise of a garden – new words are seeds ready to be planted in the greenhouse, once ready to be harvested (tested) they are moved to the garden. Once in the garden they require regular watering (more testing) to avoid wilting. Not only that but testing means points and every successful answer nudges you further up the leaderboard of all users currently learning that language.

I must admit I’m hooked. A couple of log-ins a day has pushed me from zero knowledge of Chinese to the ability to read over 150 characters in just two weeks. Admittedly I still have a long, long way to go (5,000 are needed to fully understand an average newspaper) but this grounding has already given me such a confidence boost. The feeling of seeing a previously incomprehensible sign and understanding enough to make a (correct) educated guess about the rest is indescribable. It’s also dangerous – I find myself staring at every shopfront I pass on my scooter, looking for the odd symbol which will give me some clue as to the store’s contents.

This immediate rush of success-endorphins (they’re real, I said so) has led to my dusting off previously downloaded and soon forgotten language audiobooks for a serious effort. Within a week I can already tell people in great detail how poor my Chinese is and I can ask for (and understand) directions to the nearest language school! Tomorrow I begin private lessons with a friend who frequents the same cafe as myself every Sunday so hopefully my speaking will soon be on track with my reading.

The bonus about this sudden craving for knowledge is that it seems to brighten every aspect of life. I have a new passion, the city and culture seems less foreboding and closed-off and the ego boost is fantastic. As a reward I’m about to order a bottle of Guinness from Forro Cafe – in Chinese! Chin-chin…

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One response to “TILAT #9: Learning the lingo

  1. Killer language site. Thanks for the share

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