Thoughts On Improving My Chinese Skills

In my opinion, there's nothing better than a hot shower and a spot of writing after a long day at work. My pyjamas and my oversized hoodie are ridiculously comfortable and my bed makes for a fine couch. I actually started this blog post this morning. I needed a reason to avoid a trip to the supermarket. Sometimes going out into the real world to play grown up can be rather tedious. 

I get these strange urges when an idea for a blog post bugs me for so long that I just have to sit down to write about it. If it's a crazy idea I generally tend to ignore it but when this idea hit me, I actually had to admit to myself that it's not a bad idea.

I haven't really written anything about where I am with my Chinese studies recently. That's partly due to being occupied with other things and partly due to there simply being nothing newsworthy to write about. I'm not a fan of big words when it comes to writing about my Chinese studies and you won't find any amazing study tips on my blog. There are far more talented people out there who seem to enjoy dishing out study tips, I wouldn't want to take the job away from them.

I'm also a bit weird and old-fashioned when it comes to learning Chinese. For example, I find all this new technology to teach me how to hand-write Chinese characters and remember the stroke order totally useless. It's not for me. I am a fan of the traditional way. I need to watch somebody write the character stroke for stroke and then I copy it. Then I will write the character over and over again until my hand remembers what it is supposed to be doing. Tracing a character on my Writer iPhone app with my fingertips is a great past-time but I can guarantee you I won't remember the stroke order of the character for more than two minutes. If I remember it for two minutes you can already consider that a miracle.

I'd love to go to school here in China with all the little kids and learn how to write the characters, I think it's the best way to learn and train your memory. Many people might disagree with me but that's just the way I learn. We all learn in different ways and the most important thing is that we don't condemn one style of learning just because we prefer another.

I remember, back in high school I used to study and listen to music at the same time or sometimes I'd even have the television on. My teacher always gave out to me and told me repeatedly the brain cannot acquire knowledge and process information when you are preoccupied with listening to music or watching television. She would forever complain to my dad to make sure I study hard and watch less television. Funny that most of my essays ended up being correct and when it came to participating in class I knew my stuff. It truly surprises me how a teacher can be so utterly ignorant of different styles of learning, but then again I'm not here to diss my old teachers. To this day I still respect them.

My new study material.

A couple of weeks ago I went on a quest to find a school here in Wuhan where I can study Chinese either in the mornings or on my day off with a private teacher. I have no time to go to university to take a course there and I prefer having a private teacher. I don't want to sit in a classroom with other students. It will take me forever to come out of my shell and find the confidence to speak Chinese in front of them. I don't have that much time to waste so a private teacher it is.

I did find a school and I took some friends along to help me check out the school. It looked pretty good but I wasn't too impressed with the teacher. She was okay but there were some basic questions she couldn't answer and I didn't feel like signing up for a contract where I might end up paying a penalty fee just because I can't come to class due to work commitments or other important things. I'm okay to sign a contract but I won't pay the whole course upfront. I can pay cash on the day or use my debit card, whichever the school prefers. This way seems like such a better option. Sadly that wasn't an option.

When I asked whether the school has a trial lesson available, they said they didn't. This impressed me even less and my friend wasn't very impressed either so I decided to keep looking. Presently I am still looking for a Chinese teacher here in Wuhan, so if you have any suggestions, send them my way, they will be greatly appreciated. In the meantime I'm taking some pronunciation/speaking classes with my colleague who has kindly offered to teach me. She is one of our local teachers and usually teaches English at our school but has taught Chinese before. Her pronunciation is clear and easy to understand so I'm looking forward to improving my pronunciation while studying with her.

People around here tend to comment on just how amazing my Chinese is but mostly I don't believe a word they say. Just the other week I said two words to my neighbour while in the lift (fifth floor / 五楼) and she praised my Chinese and kept saying that it's utterly amazing. Things like this make me feel so stupid. It makes me feel like if I actually say a whole sentence, the person I'm talking to will faint from the shock.

What I love the most is having a normal conversation with somebody. I don't like it when people constantly comment on my Chinese. I just want to talk to them so I can improve my Chinese. I don't need fake feedback. It's frustrating. I know my pronunciation isn't great and I need to learn a lot more words and improve my grammar so if someone tells me my Chinese is great I just want to throw a massive cream cake at them to shut them up.

Apparently I underestimate my Chinese but I know I make a lot of mistakes and I hate making mistakes. I also know my pronunciation isn't great. Sometimes I utter a single word because I don't know how to put it into a sentence and people don't get me because my pronunciation is totally off. It's frustrating.

My Chinese has improved quite a bit since I got to Wuhan but in my personal opinion it hasn't improved enough. Maybe I'm too tough on myself but I just want to have a good pronunciation and not make so many grammar mistakes. I can truly understand how my students feel about their English studies because I feel the same about my Chinese studies.

On the bright side, since arriving in Wuhan I have learned quite a few new characters. Being surrounded by Chinese characters day in day out definitely keeps your brain active. You can't help but remember them when you see them a million times a day.

Before leaving for China I started preparing for the Level Four HSK exam but if I want to take that I will have to seriously work on my hand-writing skills. Somehow that's still not that important to me. I enjoy hand-writing characters and I would love to take some calligraphy classes but I'm still convinced that I need to prioritise my oral Chinese. Chatting away to people definitely helps and I always try to learn from listening to how others structure their sentences but I do need a little bit of professional guidance. 

When I visited the Chinese school, a couple of weeks ago, they introduced some interesting books to me and after checking them out I decided to buy them off Taobao. They arrived last week and I've been leafing through a bit here and there. Usually I'm not a big fan of using a book to study but these seem quite useful.

The 俗话教程 (proverb lecture course) offers interesting insight in how things are said in Chinese. It features a text with different proverbs, vocabulary, explanations of the different proverbs and some exercises. The book also comes with an answer key, but I want to try and avoid using it. I might need a little help reading the dialogue but I'm looking forward to roping my fish into helping me out here and there. It'll be a challenge but I am game.

The 汉语听力教程 (Chinese listening comprehension lecture book) comes with a separate answer key book and an audio CD, which makes sense since the book is supposed to test your listening comprehension. You have different listening exercises where you listen and then choose the right answers from a multiple choice list. You also have vocabulary and the usage of some words is explained.

Finally, my third course book, 博雅汉语, focuses on different exercises related to various common topics. It also comes with an audio CD, a series of short articles to read and various exercises which need to be completed.

The books might be a little bit advanced for me but I enjoy a good challenge. I remember some of my Chinese classes back in Ireland used to give me a bit of a headache but oddly enough it was a good kind of headache. Afterwards, on the way home I would feel absolutely exhausted and extremely tired but I also felt happy about having accomplished something. I miss that feeling.

If I can convince my fish to help me improve my knowledge of how to hand-write Chinese characters I might just end up preparing for the Level Four HSK exam after all. Despite the lack of formal training my fish is actually a very good teacher. He has plenty of patience and his explanations make sense, to me anyway. Sometimes I think he doesn't believe me when I tell him that but that's a whole different story altogether. I love learning with him, sadly he's been up to is eyeballs in work lately so I only brought the subject up once so far. As soon as he has a little more time, I'll find some way to bribe him into teaching me a little bit. The power of a girlfriend...