Friday, January 12, 2018

What's In A Language?

Over the years I have dabbled in learning a foreign languages. Being Canadian I had French in school and later when I worked for Bell Canada I spent quite a bit of time in the classrooms at Berlitz in Toronto. I remember Berlitz being overpriced (Bell Canada paid) and rigid in their curriculum so there was no joy in learning. As corporate a learning center as you could find, look elsewhere. I also tried German because of my heritage and Japanese because I had traveled there and thought it sounded cool. Each was done with just a passing effort and therefor met with limited success.

Before embarking on my post Bell Canada life I had better luck with Spanish at the Spanish Language Institute in Toronto.  I found it a great place to study and learn and I would recommend it. They gave me a solid base along with Rosetta Stone disks that I bought on Kijiji. I hit Guatemala full of confused Spanish confidence. Now I have run face first into Mandarin Chinese and I have the mental and emotional scars to prove it.

There are some general practices that most polyglots will suggest that are important when learning a new language. Here is a great article from the Ted Talks Blog. I am by no means a polyglot. The only poly about me is the parrot I wear on my shoulders during Halloween and I glot no hair and bad eyesight. Yes I just used glot as a verb and you are now thinking about going to an online dictionary to see if it is a real word. It is and I used it wrong.

With the help of various resources I have developed a few personal guidelines to follow when I am learning a new language. Most work for me and some get tossed and are replaced with new ones. I have good days and bad days but when I get cocky I head into the breach. I confidently try to talk to locals but I usually try to keep that limited to rainy days so nobody can see my tears.

Judith Matz suggests: Get real. Decide on a simple, attainable goal to start with so that you don't feel overwhelmed.“Pick up 50 words of a language and start using them on people — and then slowly start picking up grammar.” Make language-learning a lifestyle change.

1. Commit to it. Buy the books, online courses, download the apps or whatever works for you then start. Do not make this another gym membership. You are not to busy.

2. Start with thirty minutes per day minimum. Yes, you have 30 minutes a day. There are quite a few theories on how long something takes to become a habit. Who gives a sh**. Make it one of your habits. Drink your morning coffee and practice using flash cards not staring blanking into FB.

3. Practice, practice and practice some more. Learn 5 new words and one phrase a day and then use them all day long.

4. I understand that I will not be fluent in one year and neither will you. Hell I am not even fluent in English. Seriously, fluency means perfect grammar and how many of us have perfect English grammar? Exactly. Do not look for perfection. I want to be able to order and pay for a beer in 10 languages. A man has to have goals.

5. No fear. Do not be afraid to make mistakes because is the only way to learn.  I have said the dumbest things to people in English, French, Spanish and Chinese. I gauge my level of stupidity by the expressions on peoples faces. They usually range from confused, shock, rage or amusement.

6. Have fun. You will be amazed at how good your language learning improves when you enjoy yourself. I have a tendency to put to much pressure on myself with most things so number 6 is my biggest challenge.

7. Find a conversation buddy. It is invaluable. I use
8. Use and abuse all the available tools you can find. Apps, website, YouTube, online dictionaries, podcasts, live streaming TV and Radio. Start with all the free lessons you can handle and if it is for you join a learning site. Depending on the subscription a year will cost between $150 to $200. YES you can afford. You are probably spending that on take away coffee every couple of months. For Chinese I pay to use Yo Yo Chinese and Chinese Pod.

9. You will have bad days. There will be plateaus. You will get frustrated. Take a break but no more than a day or two and then get right back at it.

10. There will be those "ah ha" moments that empower you. Simple things will excite you. Here in China we use pre-paid cards for gas and electricity. When your meter runs low you go to a shop and top up. The first time I did this I used the following simple language."Hello. I want to buy gas. 100 RMB" (in Chinese of course) and gave the clerk my card and money. He smiled and then started talking to me like I knew what he was saying. I had no clue. I gave him a dumb smile as he knowingly handed me back my card. Honestly, this little victory of walking in a shop and buying natural gas using rudimentary Chinese was exhilarating. As I was skipping happily down the street savoring my victory I walked smack into a parked car. The return to reality was quick and a bit painful.

Finally immersion if that is possible. If your going to Mexico for a week try to learn to say more than hola and una cerveza por favor.

According to Babbel (another great site) these are the top 10 spoken languages in the world today. Rocket Languages and Wikipedia had similar but slightly different results.

 Mandarin Chinese 955 million people - nǐ hǎo    Portuguese 215 Million - olá
 Spanish 405 Million - hola      Bengali 205 Million - hyālō
 English 360 Million - hello  Russian 155 Million - zdravstvuyte
 Hindi 310 Million - namaste    Japanese 125 Million - kon'nichiwa
 Arabic 295 Million - marhabaan  Punjabi 100 Million - sata srī akāla

As most of you know I have spent quite a bit of time in Latin America. I lived and worked in Nicaragua twice, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador and Mexico. I have also traveled to Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay. I studied for 3 months Boquete Panama and all these experiences gave me great exposure to Spanish. I did get a bit lazy and my Spanish should be better but I can carry it with confidence.

I ran into some of the same lazy patterns here in China. I have been exposed to the language all day and as my first year winds down I know I should be better. I can ask for directions, order food, take buses and trains and have short simple conversations. However since I have decided to stay in China for the next 2 years I have been recharged. I am now on a mission to excel at Mandarin Chinese. In the month since I made the decision my language skills have improved 100%. Why? Because I am following the simple rules that I laid out at the beginning of this post. These work for me and they should work for you.

What I have also discovered is that the more that I try, the more people want to help. You have to put in the effort. I have noticed that my daily experiences are better just tossing out new language where ever and when ever I can. Although how many times a day can you ask someone "where is the bathroom?" "Xǐ shǒu jiān zài nǎlǐ?" Shop keepers and vendors smile more often. They laugh at my attempts at speaking but in a happy supportive way. I am a perpetual "Deer In The Headlights" staring back at them when they excitedly start speaking back.

When a foreigner is speaking Chinese people will stop and look. This is not a shy culture. They will walk over to where you are and just stand there listening to you, smiling as they take it all in. It's a bit unnerving at first but like most things here you have to embrace the experience. If there is a kid around they will always say "hello" and try their English on you. Its always great to shock them with some simple Chinese. I find myself trying new words and phrases that I have recently been trying to learn. I am now on a mission to move beyond learned phrases and create sentences using my vocabulary. I will destroy 5000 years of language history and any self respect in the process.

There are countless language learning resources online. I have a paid account with Yo Yo Chinese. It is worth every penny. I also have a paid account with Chinese Pod, plus free accounts with Learn Chinese, Popup Chinese and even the BBC. They all have free lessons with different content and teaching styles. I find changing it up once in a while helps so I will bounce around a bit. Popup Chinese has a huge series of free podcasts that I use to practice listening which you will find out is the hardest part of any language. You will learn to speak before you will be able to listen to understand. YouTube is a gold mine. This link from Fluencia lists 12 great channels for Chinese.

Are you a mobile phone zombie? Try Duolingo.

Always wanted to learn a new language? Whats stopping you? Zhù nǐ hǎo yùn

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Little Snow, A Lot Of Chaos

I am Canadian and winter does not scare me. I clearly remember walking home from school during the Blizzard of '77 thinking nothing of it. I grew up when the winters were cold and they lasted for 4 months. I know this sounds like our grandparents telling us that "they had a 2 day walk to school ever day" but winters were cold, snowy and fantastic.

We skated and playing hockey on home made rinks until you could not feel you toes. Then using bread bags inside your boots or skates to keep your feet a dry so you could continue.We would latch onto the bumpers of unsuspecting passing cards sliding on our boots, then our butt and finally our head/face, laughing the entire time. Those winters started to fade and now we can go an entire winter without any snow. However this year Mother Nature has returned to show just who is boss, climate change be damned. Niagara Falls is cold and snowy like years gone by.

Blizzard of "77 near Niagara Falls, Canada
I also have worked in Western Canada including Alberta/Saskatchewan and British Columbia in the Oil fields mid winter. First as a laborer, which taught me endurance and ultimately as a transport truck driver which taught me to really drive in the ice and snow and sitting in a warm truck cab was much better than being outside. Minus 25 was normal during the winter months but experience in dressing warm and not buying your work wear at Wallmart made the days and nights bearable.

One special year an extreme arctic cold front moved in while working a little north of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. The temperature plunged to - 52. Yes sir that is not a mistake. Now, when working in the Oil Fields, especially driving a truck, the very first thing you do when you wake up at 5 AM is reach for your phone or TV remote and check both the forecast and temperature. Cloudy means warmer, clear blue skies usually meant cold and on this day there was not a cloud in the sky, well when the sun eventually came up that is. All work was cancelled because machinery would not work properly never mind the danger of skin exposure being critical. We did get paid to stay in the hotel and watch movies for 3 days. During the winter, unless my truck was housed in a warm garage it was never turned off and left running 24/7. Environmental impact aside if I shut it off there was a good chance it would not start again until spring. I did have to run for fuel a couple of time and that just about destroyed me.

So,why the reminiscing about a few Canadian winter experiences? It snowed here in Xi'an yesterday and with 7.5 cm (3 inches) of snow and a temperature of about - 3C (23F). The apocalypse has officially arrived in China.

Yes, that is exactly how much snow fell
This morning I opened my fridge to eat and found pickles and onions. That was not how I wanted to start my day. Since I had the morning off I gathered my courage and with great trepidation, a daily ritual, I headed out into my own real world game of Frogger. Once there I dodged the scooters and delivery vehicles that drive top speed on the sidewalk, yes on the sidewalk. I then joined the masses for the migration across the main intersection hoping not to get nailed by the rouge driver who does not give a sh** about any laws, rules, lights or people in his way but who obviously has a Masters Degree in horn blowing. With my my destination finally in sight I needed to make it past a series of outdoor vendors, parked bicycles and smog belching buses. The green doors of Vanguard, the local supermarket welcomed me with unexpected fury.

The Chinese are extremists on the best of days but this "snow storm" obviously had everyone convinced that they were going to be housebound for weeks and possibly months. They had to stock up on supplies and fast. Now Vanguard is usually busy and in a country of 1.3 billion you come to realize that everywhere is always busy. Anyways it was busier than I had ever experienced and people were in sheer panic. It was louder than normal and this being China you have to appreciate how loud people are. Shopping carts overflowing, pushing, shoving, grabbing and general rudeness. Our very own Black Friday, grocery store edition. I walked in, stood for about 15 seconds and internally I said "no fu**ing way, well at least I think it was internally. I turned around and out I went to the astonished looks from the wide eyed maniacs entering the store. I picked up some bread, eggs and tomatoes at a small out of the way shop on the way back and go creative with the onions and pickles.

Thursdays I have a light day, well evening, with only 2 classes with 3 students. Only 2 of the 6 showed up. Their parents sending messages that it was to dangerous to try and get to the school
today. There was to much snow and it was to cold. So Irene and I built a snowman. First I taught her the art of the snow angel but she would not even think about laying in the snow, so I pushed her in and covered her to show her she "would not die". The snow had no moisture so I used a couple buckets of water to create quality packing snow. It was hoodie weather although the monster coat worn by my teacher partner told another story.

Now all that being said, in my community families were building snowmen, playing in the snow, taking pictures and having a great time. As ever China is the land of glorious contradictions.