Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language through a foreign language? I ask because that was my afternoon.
On Tuesdays, between afternoon and evening classes, I usually go to the pool and get my swim on. Today, however, and unbeknownst to me, the pool was closed. So I went back to work and sat around doing, well, nothing productive.
Fortunately, for me anyway, one of the other teachers arrived a bit early for her classes and we were able to sit and chat for a bit. I should mention that this other teacher does not teach English; she teaches Mandarin Chinese.
We had been talking for about an hour, and, as we do not know each other very well, we had been talking about all the useless and inconsequential things one talks to new co-workers about: Weather, travel, restaurants, shopping, etc. Finally, curiosity got the better of me and I asked her to tell me a little about Shanghai, where she is from.
She gave me the basics and recommended a few places to go, should I ever make it to China for a bit of sightseeing. I mentioned that I wanted to go to Shanghai in 2010 for the Expo, and she said that that would be a good time to go.
Now, as you may know, one thing I am incredibly curious about is language. Bearing this in mind, it should not come as a surprise that I asked her about the various Chinese languages. She gave me a brief explanation of the three major languages – Mandarin (basic, textbook Chinese, spoken primarily in the North, in Beijing), Cantonese (the other major language, spoken mainly in Hong Kong and the South) and the Shanghai dialect, which, although based on Mandarin is distinct enough to classify it as another language. Then she told me I had been saying her name incorrectly.
Thus began my first Chinese lesson. We covered a few of the basics, hello, goodbye, etc. The difficulty for me was that she was speaking to me in Japanese (our common language) and writing in the Western alphabet (what you are reading this post in). Now, of course, the beauty of the alphabet is that it can represent an incredible number of sounds in a variety of combinations of letters. However, I primarily use them to represent sounds in English and Japanese, with the occasional Spanish or French or Italian or German thrown in. (Not that I speak all those European languages, just that we use their sounds in English on occasion.)
Yet, to learn Chinese, I have to adjust myself to a brand new combination of letters to represent sounds that I have never spoken before.
And I have to do it all in Japanese.
But it is fun, and I am looking forward to the next lesson.
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