|Mandarin phonetic characters, often referred to as "bo po mo fo" (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ)|
Is it weird to get nostalgic about studying Chinese? I really don't know.
And it's not like I'm through learning Chinese, either. I learn new words all the time, and I'm always trying to improve my grammar. My Mandarin might be good for a waiguoren*, but I'm always trying to speak, read, and write it better.
So I guess when I say "studying" what I really mean is taking a class, having a textbook, writing homework, and all that stuff. I'm talking about being in school, and having a teacher.
When I started learning Chinese - more from desperation than any genuine desire to learn the language - my wife was my teacher. We held class in our living room, and she had me reading children's books. She taught me the sounds of the phonetic symbols next to each character, and I would do my best to imitate her pronunciation. It was really slow going, and I lost patience easily.
A few weeks later, my wife decided that she'd had enough of my foolishness, and she signed me up for a Chinese class at a local university. Tung Hai University was closest to where we lived, so that was the obvious choice.
Thus began a pleasant year of learning Chinese. I quickly found that practice with the phonetic characters paid dividends - especially since my instructors had no knowledge of pinyin or any desire to teach it. With their guidance I learned the phonetic characters much faster, and before long the children's books my wife had used began to seem easy.
I had Chinese class for (I think) two hours a day, and I studied at least two hours a night. I did this five days a week, for two semesters. As I learned more characters I was able to read things, and as I began to read things I wanted to learn more characters. Suddenly I wasn't surrounded by meaningless scrawls - I was surrounded by words - and knowing the meaning of these words proved extremely useful.
|Example of how phonetic characters (in blue) are used with tonal markers (in red).|
That, and it was also fun sitting around deciphering Doraemon or Jojo's Bizarre Adventure. It began to seem more like a game I was playing, this attempt to find out what I could understand and what I still needed to learn. I finished the first semester's Chinese textbook before the semester was even over, and before Chinese New Year my wife was helping me learn (and memorize) many of the Tang Dynasty poems.**
The spoken part of Chinese, however, had its own frustrations. While I was often complimented on my reading and never faulted for failures of comprehension, I found that spoken interactions were a lot more difficult and/or embarrassing. My wife was constantly correcting my pronunciation. Coworkers were constantly telling me that my grammar was weird, or altogether wrong. People on the street talked too fast, and I easily lost their meaning.
But I caught on eventually. And in the end, I was thankful for the way I was corrected. I think that if certain people had been more "polite" with me, if they had been more complimentary, I wouldn't have improved as fast as I did. As it was, the frustration of having to communicate clearly only added to my resolve, and it only made me want to get it right the next time.
Besides that, I enjoyed attending class at Tung Hai. My instructors were funny, the campus was nice, and I made a lot of new friends. I also gained a confidence that I didn't have before. I knew that I could learn Chinese, and I knew that it could be fun. Of course I realize that not everyone has had a similar experience - some of my classmates certainly didn't - but that's how it was for me.
As I sit here, writing about it now, I can remember so many other things from that time. Hanging out in the campus bookstore. Walking to class in the morning. A new red scooter I used to park on Jung Gang Road.*** People I used to know. Tests. So many things were new to me then, and everything was fascinating.
Ah, that pleasant year in Tung Hai. And now - so many years later - a coworker is telling me some of Taiwan's worst air pollution hovers directly above that stately campus. Even so, I'm sure there are now some other waiguoren(s) there, learning things that I now take for granted.
|Page from Chinese textbook - (ideographic) characters,|
phonetic characters, tonal markers, character classification,
and number of strokes per character. The far left inset
introduces how the character "water" developed over time.
台灣幸福百事 "100 Fortunate Things in Taiwan"
"Conventional Industries" (3)
"Conventional Industries" (2)
*In case you are reading this outside of Taiwan or China, waiguoren 外國人 means "foreigner."
**This sounds more impressive to non-Chinese speakers than it actually is. There are very definite levels of understanding with regard to these poems. What a small child memorizes and what a university student studies are very different things.
***Jung Gang Road 中港路, or Taichung Gang Road 台中港路 (literally "Taichung Port Road") is the old name for that road/street. It is now referred to as Taiwan Boulevard 台灣大道.