Having lived, worked and travelled abroad for the past few years, my passport has many visas, resident permits and stamps in it. Before I went to China, I took some evening classes in Mandarin Chinese, and continued (or rather restarted) studying it in China. I started to learn it when I was in graduate school. After this, I worked for a year, preparing documents for the China move and also taking a teaching course. During this time, I forgot pretty much all the Chinese I learnt, so it was really a restart when I went to China, learning the language again. I was never that good, and for the first two years, my reading and writing was much better than my speaking and listening. Like my students, I lacked the confidence to speak it, only using the odd phrase, like 你好 (nĭhăo) hello, 谢谢 (xièxie) thank you or 再见 (zàijiàn) googbye. I’m not sure exactly when it switched, but there was a lesson, I think, when I spent the majority of my time speaking Chinese, and after that, most lessons went that way, and I was (a little) more comfortable speaking to others, even though my language ability is not great. Incidentally, my listening is still pretty poor, although I took the Chinese proficiency exam HSK level 3, just before I left. I passed it, but my highest grade (out of reading, writing and listening) was, surprisingly, in listening.
Since returning home, I’ve continued to learn Chinese, despite the fact I don’t plan to go back to China (in the short term, at least). It’s expensive, it’s far away, would involve flying – which I’m trying to cut back on – and difficult to get to (requiring a visa). In a decade or so, sure, it’ll be interesting to see what the subway is like in Beijing, or how areas have changed, and maybe meet and catch up with some friends. But right now, I’m not that bothered about returning. Yet, I have continued to study Chinese. Partly because, I have to say, I think it is interesting. On Instagram, I follow my Chinese school and recently they put up the name of a movie which I love – Back to the Future. The Chinese translation is literal <<回到未来>>. The first two characters – 回到 (huídào) means go back to, or return to (e.g. 以前我住在中国, 但是现在我回到了英国 which basically means ‘I used to live in China but now I am back in the UK’). The second two characters – 未来 (wèilái) mean the future. Hence, the literal translation – to go back to the future.
I haven’t translated the names to all my favourite films, although I saw they had also translated the title of Inception, as <<盗梦空间>> (Dàomèng Kōngjiān). Apparently, the first character – 盗 (dào) means to steal or to rob (but can also be used as thief or robber). The second – 梦 (mèng) means dream. The last two characters – 空间 (kōngjiān) mean space. Thus, the film can be translated as ‘A space for Dream Thieves’ or ‘A space for Stealing Dreams’. I haven’t seen the film all the way through, but I think that might be roughly what the plot is about.
The other reason why I am continuing to learn it, is that I want to keep my brain active, and not to lose the language ability I have (which, granted, isn’t great but still). Now, my Chinese is not so good. I get the grammar wrong, I forget the words, and, as I told my teacher recently, perhaps one reason why people find it hard is that you have so many different words for one thing. The conversation we were having was about a violin player. I was watching a video clip and describing what was happening in Chinese. There was a violin player who was in the video. My teacher asked me if I knew the word for the action of making music using a violin. I offered, ‘to play’, but was told no. In English, we tend to say ‘play’ for different instruments – trumpet, piano, guitar, violin etc. Not so in China. You say 拉小提琴 (lā xiăotíqín). 小提琴 (xiăotíqín) means violin. The first character – 拉 (lā) means to pull. It is the action you take when you play it. Viola, cello and double base use the same first character to describe that action. But if take the word saxophone – 萨克斯 (sàkèsī) the character you use before it is 吹 (chuī) which means to blow. For piano (钢琴 gāngqín) and guitar (吉他 jítā) you use the character 弹 (tán) which means to pluck.
I was telling my teacher that one reason (perhaps) foreigners find it so hard to learn Chinese, other than character recognition etc, is that there isn’t just one word to remember, in this case ‘to play’, but you need to know what type of instrument it is and how it is played, which adds another level to everything!