Notes on a Chinese language exchange

Do you use LiveJournal? Or have you ever used it? Clicked your way through their countless blogs? Are they even blogs? Journals? Public Diaries? 

I never quite got the hang of LiveJournal. It confused the bejaysus out of me when I first tried to make sense of it. Even signing up and reading the FAQ section or using one of their journal templates didn't help me. In fact it scared me so much that I refused to take any steps towards making having my own blog a reality until 2010 came around and I finally told myself not to be such a wuss + plus I discovered that is actually idiot-proof, well pretty much anyway.

No, my musings on LiveJournal have absolutely nothing to do with the topic I'm actually planning to talk about. In fact you totally could have skipped reading the last two paragraphs. Sorry, did I forget to mention that? Damn, I'm getting really forgetful these days. My apologies, I'll be celebrating a milestone birthday soon. I seem to be getting somewhat senile (and nervous since I'll be in Shanghai on the day!) as the day nears.

Anyways, back to LiveJournal. Just a second, we'll get to the Chinese language exchange in just a moment, don't rush me please, thanks. Anywho, from the little I remember of LiveJournal (Does it even still exist? I kinda lost focus since 2009 came and I started to spend all my time on Twitter...) and please do correct me if I am wrong, which I probably am, it used to give you an option to post you current mood and the music you were listening to or the book you were reading (which is actually stupid because I have not yet met the genius who manages to blog while reading a book but we'll ignore this little flaw for the time being since it's really not important for this blog post).

I really feel like boring you with my current mood which I'm actually not quite sure of (it's somewhere between tired and content) + I was really just looking for a chance to mention 羅志祥 (Show Luo) who's new album 9ood Show you should all totally buy because it's pure awesomeness (I'm totally biased so you should probably make up your own mind!) from someone who's pure handsomeness! Gosh, people you should really know me by now. I manage to mention 羅志祥 or 王力宏 (Wang Leehom) even if what I'm talking about has nothing to do with those two but let's not go into that now.

Let's get cracking on my thoughts on my recent experience with a Chinese language exchange, then, shall we?

First of, the website I used to meet my victim (an apt description for anyone who has to endure my spoken Chinese!) is called Conversation Exchange and I actually found the site through Google. I'll give you a quick review of my thoughts on it:

I quite like the webpage. It's really simple to use and easy to navigate. It's pretty no-nonsense (unlike some other websites which I mentioned previously but will not mention again but we all know I'm talking about LiveJournal) which is something you want. Finding a language partner shouldn't take you forever.

Conversation Exchange requires that you sign up to their website and create an account in order to be able to use their service. Signing up is free and takes about five minutes. Filling out your profile may take you another five minutes, then you're already good to go. The information you have to provide on your profile is pretty basic. It is limited to:
  • Name
  • Gender/Age
  • Country/Town
  • The language/s you already speak
  • The language/s you are learning
  • The type of exchange you want to do (options are: face-to-face, Skype etc., penpal)
  • A brief bio
  • hobbies and interests
To be quite honest I would prefer if there was also an option to upload a photo as I've a bit of an issue with meeting up with a total stranger I've never ever met before (no, I won't be going on a blind date any time soon unless the person I will meet is aforementioned 羅志祥 and/or 王力宏) but I suppose you could get to know the person first before you met up, etc.

The websites asks you not to provide personal contact details in your profile which I think is pretty sensible. Since this website isn't just limited to one country but let's you choose just about any country and any language you don't want just anyone having access to your contact details. Furthermore, the website offers a private messaging service (if someone messages you, you receive an email with the message and a link to their profile with the option to reply) to enable you to provide your contact details only to the person you actually want to have your language exchange with.

If you've been following my musings about my Chinese studies you may have read about me complaining about my abilities to actually speak Chinese on one occasion or other. Don't get me wrong, it's not like I can't speak at all and totally mispronounce everything. My grammar and pronunciation may not always be spot on but like I said I can make myself understood and reducing the mistakes I make is a work in progress. As my dad always says, "No-one is born a master of anything." I can make myself understood and for some strange (and totally incomprehensible reason) Chinese people are forever telling me my Chinese is quite good. I usually reply with "廢話!" (as a verb this translates into "to talk nonsense", the more direct translation would be "What bullshit!") if I know the person, if I don't really know the person I just smile and say thanks because you know I do have manners.

I joke around with my Chinese friends and occasionally even make a fool out myself when my Chinese teacher shows me off and proudly tells everyone that I speak Chinese which leaves me with no choice but to actually speak a little Chinese to proof her point. How the Chinese people I speak to manage to refrain from giving me a look of sheer horror when they hear what I do to their beautiful language is beyond me! I only struggle to make myself understood when I get the feeling that the person I am talking to doesn't have patience to let me finish. That's when I get nervous. I automatically try harder to speak well and correctly but instead the exact opposite happens. I become my own victim, get tongue-tied and what I say makes no sense whatsoever. Mostly it's not even Chinese. Or English. Or any kind of comprehensible language.

Considering that I not so long ago initially actually refused to open my mouth and speak Chinese for fear of making a mistake and having people laugh at me, I've actually come a long way. Now I just open my mouth and speak. To heck with with making a mistake. To heck with the pronunciation being slightly off. I speak Chinese and people understand me, more or less. Plus when my favourite waitress at Starbucks proudly tells the customers behind me that I speak Chinese and they look at me disbelievingly until I turn to my friend and ask her in Chinese 他們為什麼我不相信你哦?(Why don't they believe you, huh?) I feel just a little superior. Not overly and I have by no means lost the ground under my feet but those two seconds where a complete stranger admires my ability to speak a language most people appear to write off as "too difficult" feels damn good. I firmly believe that I'm entitled to that feeling. I've worked hard to get to the level I am at now and I will continue to work hard to climb up the ladder of proficiency.

In order to climb up that ladder I need to speak a lot of Chinese though. I learn fast and using a language is the easiest way to make me learn. It works better than the carpet beater my mum used to get me to do my home work. No she never actually beat me with it - she's not a monster you know - but merely seeing the blasted thing usually did the trick.

I remember, last year when my teacher and I went out for a lovely Chinese dinner to celebrate me passing my HSK exam, we ended up chatting to the restaurant owner. He said something intriguing and to this day I do believe it is true. He told my teacher to take me to China and dump me in some small town village where absolutely no soul speaks English. They both laughed and then the boss added "In three months she'll speak Chinese!". Maybe he recognised that I have some sort of talent for learning languages, maybe he was just joking, I don't know. I didn't ask and he didn't say. Nevertheless, the man was spot on. If you were to take me to China and put me somewhere where I have no option but to speak and use the language to make myself understood I would improve quite a bit quite quickly. I would also have a migraine for about three months straight but I would learn something, that I am quite sure of.

When I started my quest to find a language partner, it was funnily enough, the 老闆's (boss) words that I recalled. I have plenty of confidence when I speak to my teacher in Chinese. We walk down the street laughing and joking in Chinese without a care in the world. It's not that I don't care about the mistakes I make when I speak to my teacher but it's just that they don't make me nervous. It's probably because I feel comfortable when I am around my Chinese teacher. I also feel confident. I lack both those feelings when I speak to strangers in Chinese so I am currently on a quest to work on increasing my confidence and level of comfort. I believe my trip to China will also help with that since I made the decision to speak as much Chinese as possible while in China. Shouldn't be hard now, should it? If anyone wants to speak English with me I'll just reply in Chinese and say that I don't actually speak English - we'll see how far I get with that white lie before I have to out myself. That's what one of my friends suggested at a party I went to the other day and we both liked that idea a lot.

Anyways, thanks to Conversation Exchange I actually found a language partner on the same day I signed up. We exchanged a couple of emails in both English and Chinese over the course of a few days and then decided to meet up for a chat about two weeks ago. I was pretty nervous leading up to the meeting and because our first meeting was actually on April's Fool's Day I managed to convince myself that I would most definitely be stood up so tried to look really nonchalant while sipping my coffee and checking Twitter. I think I can pull off the yeah-I'm-not-actually-waiting-for-someone-face quite well. It helps when you have an iPhone to busy yourself with. A book also works, in fact a book will always make you look like you're definitely not waiting for someone. Especially when you've managed to snag a cosy corner in a coffee shop and you have a cup of coffee/tea right next to you. Bring your iPod as well. If you need anymore tips, I'm happy to help!

Luckily for me my language partner did arrive, albeit late. Tz, tz! We said hello in English and then switched to Chinese, at which point I barely managed to keep the horrified look off my face. This guy was speaking way too fast and I was struggling really hard to understand anything. I could've asked him to slow down or repeat but the proud idiot inside of me refused. Sometimes I just get possessed by the insane idea that I really need to save face - yes, I definitely have been learning Chinese too long. I don't know whether this guy was just trying to test me by speaking so incredibly fast but for some miraculous reason I manged to understand enough to actually answer his questions correctly and whenever I didn't I blamed it on the fact that it was too loud inside the coffee shop, thus giving me the perfect excuse to ask him to repeat what he'd just said. If he caught on then he played along really well.

He dumped me in the deep end by steering the conversation into a business direction about my new job, my previous job, the company I'd be working for and the company I had been working for previously, etc. I answered as best as I could but to be quite honest I just don't have the vocabulary to have a business orientated discussion in Chinese, nor do I care for that at the moment. I don't like talking about my job after I leave the office, not for long anyway. I leave work at work, always. It's a habit I got accustomed to after spending six years working my backside off for a company that didn't care about their employees (to put it mildly) and regularly violated the Irish Working Time Act in about as many ways as they possibly could but that's another story for another day.

After some difficulty I managed to steer the conversation back towards more familiar waters and topics such as family and travel. Any other questions about work I simply ignored. Ideally, if you're a bloke and have a little tactfulness this should indicate that the subject you wish to talk about is not the subject the lady you're talking to wants to talk about. Before you ask, gushing about 王力宏 for two hours wasn't on my agenda. Well, strictly speaking that's always on my agenda but I do have enough tactfulness not to put a man through that. Unless of course he really rubs me up the wrong way that is.

I must admit that I got a bit annoyed when part of our English chat ended up being about the merits of speaking Chinese with a Beijing accent. I swear, at this stage I will tell the next person that mentions speaking Chinese with a Beijing accent to shut up but I will add a few obscenities between to and shut up. I will happily have an interesting and meaningful discussion on the merits and faults of learning to speak Chinese with a clear and distinct Beijing accent but I refuse to allow anyone to tell me speaking with a southern accent will make me sound like I'm uneducated and will ensure that nobody will ever understand me. I find this incredibly hard to believe since everyone I've spoken to managed to understand my Chinese and not once did my accent come into the equation.

I don't know if I overreacted but I felt offended, seriously offended. It may be the woman in me, early PMS or maybe I actually have a point but I wasn't happy, still am not. In fact I was so unhappy that I actually vented in Chinese which usually calms me down as it takes some effort for me to make sense in Chinese. My rant ended up being so long that even Twitter demanded that I trim it. Only Facebook allowed me to post it in full and some of my Chinese speaking friends who read my post agreed with me and supported my thoughts on the fact that being able to speak and being understood matters most, not what accent you have.

According to my teacher I actually had a very clear Chinese accent when she first started teaching me but I have since been southernised. Mind you, during class I still actually learn the correct pronunciation first before I choose a lazier way of pronouncing the word, though I don't always do that, thus I actually have a pretty strange accent. I would like to believe that this is the real reason why my Chinese speaking friends laugh when I speak Chinese. It actually makes me laugh too.

Back to the language exchange though, since I've slightly ventured off topic here which I could keep going with since in addition to being so blatantly insulted I also can't stand when someone, usually a male someone, completely disregards equality and women's rights. Trying to defend those two topics is even more tiring than having a business related chat - it's 2012 for the love of everything!

I'd like to leave you with a few, hopefully useful tips for a language exchange. Although numbered these are in no particular order.

1) Discuss what you would like to talk about in advance so that both of you can prepare accordingly. Decide which topics you'd like to talk about in which language. Both of you should have a say about what you talk about. For a first meeting you could try to just introduce yourself in the language you're learning, although if you prefer you can of course just jump right in. If you think your language partner is picking topics that are too easy for them try to challenge them. Be bold, they'll appreciate it. You should also remember to respect limits though. Subjects that one person does not like to talk about should not be repeatedly breached.

2) If you meet face to face, pick a place where you feel comfortable and where it's easy to have a conversation. A night club is really not the right place to meet unless you really fancy your language partner and plan on picking him or her up in which case you should probably let you language partner know first to avoid nasty surprises. Also if your friends happen to be at the same night club you really don't want to have your crush walk off with a scoff. I would also suggest you do the picking up in the language you're learning although you should probably prepare in advance so you don't make a fool of yourself. I'm totally not giving you any useful tips here, am I?

3) If you meet online using Skype, etc., because you and your language partner aren't in the same country or city, pick a time that's convenient of both of you. Straight after work mightn't be the best idea, you both may be too tired to actually make an effort. Leave the TV or radio off and put that phone away. You want to learn a language so you should give 100%.

4) Don't be shy to correct your language partner and demand that he or she corrects you as well. It's the only way for both of you to gain the most out of your chat. It is also the purpose of a language exchange. On the other hand, don't be patronising, a language exchange is not class.

5) Meet regularly, if both your schedules permit, or at least semi-regularly.

6) Be willing to learn. Accept the corrections your language partner makes. They are making an effort to help you speak better. Going off in a huff about having all your mistakes pointed out is not exactly helpful. I know it can be a little tough but chin up, at least you know what you're doing wrong and you can improve. If no-one ever tells you, your mistake will become habit and eventually you'll just think that you're actually speaking correctly when you really aren't. Two years later it that little mistake you made in the beginning will have grown into a huge monster and it will be difficult to get rid of.

7) Knowing someone speaks the same language you do can easily make you lazy. You mightn't make as much of an effort if you don't know how to say something in the language you're learning simply because you know that your language partner will understand you anyway. Throwing it out in your native language and hoping that your language partner will understand isn't really ideal. Try to explain yourself even if it makes you feel stupid. Later on, ask for the word or phrase you didn't know and write it down so you'll know next time. If you already know how to explain that word or phrase you will find it much easier to remember, I find.

If you have any other suggestions or think I'm talking nonsense, do let me know. I'll be happy to add/remove them to/from the list.