Nearly 35 years ago, during a relatively short stint serving in Taiwan, I began a journey along a challenging and rewarding road—mastering Chinese.
Five years ago, at the age of 60, I reached a milestone—I passed the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) Level 5 exam. For those who are not familiar with the HSK, it is the Chinese government-administered Chinese language proficiency exam. Level 5 is the second-to-highest tier, an advanced level equivalent to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) level C1.
This is not a story about spending years in language classes. In fact, I spent three months in language school before begging my agency language supervisor to allow me to become a dropout. Nor is it a story of spending the last three decades living and working in a Chinese language environment.
After my first two years in Taiwan, I spent most of my time in my agency’s English-language office; and subsequently in another English-language environment in Singapore for the remainder of my ten years in Asia before moving back to the US. I then spent a decade of fairly minimal contact with the Chinese language before re-engaging in some China-focused ministry efforts that sporadically required me to speak in Chinese.
Rather, it is a story about an approach to language learning that might be useful to others at different waypoints in their own journey. This story focuses on strategy, not methods.
I struggle when I hear people say, “I am fluent in Chinese.” I have friends who can confidently, and with justification, claim fluency; however, they are among the few who have spent the majority of their adult lives in a Chinese-language environment.
For most of the rest of us on the journey, fluency is a badge we tend to cling to, justified or not, out of a desire to demonstrate to others (and ourselves) that the vast amount of time and effort we have put into learning Chinese has been worthwhile. The idea that we are not fluent can challenge our sense of self-worth, and we think a lack of fluency influences how others see us.
I vividly remember an incident thirty years ago in Taiwan that made this very real for me. A local pastor whom I knew, respected, and cared for made an off-hand query on whether I knew how to drive a car (I am the son of a car guy). Car ownership was not ubiquitous in Taiwan at that time, so the question was (somewhat) understandable; however, his wife quickly rebuked him for the question. The exchange illustrated clearly to me that not being able to express something is often equated with lack of knowledge or skill. It can even be a source of prejudice, whether intended or not; and we naturally struggle when people view us in a negative light.
Several years back during a “Chinese Corner” event in the US I ran into an older gentleman who had studied Chinese for years. His knowledge and vocabulary were quite impressive, but I also found him annoying. On reflection, I realized how much his language ability was tied to his self-worth. His approach to interaction was to show off his language skill, rather than using it as a means to empathetically engage with those around him.
THE SCOPE OF THE CHALLENGE
It goes without saying that language is very complex. But like a fish who does not know he is in water, we often do not fully grasp the level of complexity of learning a second language, because we are “natural swimmers” in our first language.
I like to think of it in terms of math. The Hanyu Da Cidian (汉语大词典 or Comprehensive Chinese Word Dictionary) contains about 370,000 words. By comparison, the Oxford English Dictionary comprises around 750,000 words. These dictionaries include many terms that are either not frequently used, or are used within specific subject domains (science, technology, economics). Even after discounting specialized language, however, those astoundingly large numbers indicate the magnitude of the second language challenge.
The magnitude of the problem, like seeing the true size of a mountain as you approach it, only grows larger when considering how words connect together in sentences. The number of possible combinations of words to express oneself in Chinese is likely in the tens of millions. Listening to native Chinese speakers can be a daunting task.
What I needed, then, was a strategy to tackle the journey to fluency. In the next post, I will introduce a strategy that has worked for me.
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