It’s never too late to learn a new language. I was 26 years old when I learned to speak Mandarin Chinese. And I was 32 when I learned to read and write Chinese characters.
I made the decision to move to China in January 2006. I had never been there before, knew no one there, and only knew one person who had been there as part of a large tourist group. None of these things deterred me, they actually made me more excited about the opportunity. I bought a one way ticket to Shanghai.
My contract had us arriving China one month before we started work to acclimate ourselves. But this was still 7 months away for me. How would I prepare for a year-long move to a place completely foreign to me and everyone I knew?
First goal: begin to learn Mandarin. I found ways to get access to Rosetta Stone. I downloaded and listened to Pimsleur audio training courses. The action I took that I believe helped the most was I forced myself to only listen to Chinese any time I was in my car.
By the time I landed in Shanghai, I only knew how to say hi, bye, thank you, and a few other “not very conversational words”.
For the first two weeks our “Boss” showed us around the neighborhood and city. He taught us how to shop, eat, and get around on public transportation. At the end of this orientation period, he gave us a ad with our address on it – written in Chinese. His words went something like this, “You guys will be living here for a year. I will not be with you all the time. As you have seen taxi drivers do not speak English. This ard has your address for when you need to get home without me.” After a couple times using this card, and realizing how much I would be in a taxi, I could not put full faith in taxi drivers for a year without knowing how to speak to them and or give them directions to where I lived.
“I will learn Chinese.” ~circa July/August 2006
Having committed myself to learning Mandarin, I soon noticed that 7 months of just listening to the language helped me to easier begin to understand the native speakers I was around everyday.
I compare this to how babies begin to speak. They first only listen and practice sounds for the first 1-2 years of their life. Then they begin to speak using the language(s) that they have been observing. Nowhere in this equation is the idea of “formal learning”.
With this auditory background, I had an advantage over my colleagues who were also new to China and the language. Instead of just hearing mumble-mumble-blah-blah-blah, I was able to at least pick out where words or phrases began and ended. After that I was able to pick out a few words and with context clues figure out what folks were talking about.
Here’s what Helped me the most…
The willingness to put myself out there as a person interested in learning and wanting to practice my conversational skills. Let me explain…
I began to carry around a paperback Chinese English Dictionary and a small notepad which i affectionately called wo de nao 我的脑 (my brain).
I said paperback, but this was not a pocket/travel dictionary. It was about 5x7in laid flat, and about 2 inches thick of English-Chinese translations printed on “Bible Paper”.
Directly across the street from my apartment was a Muslim restaurant. I became good friends with he family that owned and worked there. The husband/dad would come over to me and start conversations. When I’d get stuck, he’d look up the words in the dictionary that I didn’t know and point them out to me so I could learn them.
My brain was a pocket sized spiral flip notebook. During taxi rides or long subway/rides, i’d pull out my brain and go over the words I’d written in it to commit them to memory.
It was divided into two sections.
- Opening it from the front gave you a list of random words that i would come across in my daily life that i wanted to remember. We lived in a very non touristy area, about 40 minutes from downtown and 40 minutes from work.
- Opening it from the back gave you the list of words associated with food, eating, and ordering at restaurants. This was the MOST helpful in the beginning because menus in non foreign-centric restaurants contain little to no English. In order to eat at any restaurant, we would have to know how to order our food in Chinese without seeing the menu. Sometimes we got lucky and the menu would have pictures.
Drunk practice may have been the best practice. You don’t care about making mistakes.
Taxi drivers were also very chatty. Once they saw you knew a little they’d try to engage. I did my best to engage right back. And coming home on late nights when they were our defect designated driver made the conversations even more fun.
In five months after arriving in China, I felt comfortable traveling to other cities relying only on myself as the translator.
I had another person take interest in my after seeing my with my dictionary all the time. This was a teacher at the University where i worked.I began to meet with him a couple times per week just to learn more and practice during my long breaks on campus.
The first few times you successfully do this, you will feel like a genius!
There was one thing he taught me that I would never use during that first year in China, but comes in handy more often now – 12 years later. That is being able to see a Chinese character and look it up in the dictionary.
After coming back to the US, i continued to practice and learn more Chinese on my own. I had the great opportunity to work at Johns Hopkins University and there I attended Chinese classes where i Learned to read and write Chinese characters. At this point i’d say I can read about 2,000 characters.