It is a world I only met nine months ago, and I was foolish to think there was only one tricky mountain of vocabulary standing between me and telling great stories from China. Giddy with excitement that I could potentially have access to compelling, poignant, incredible stories in a language spoken by millions of people in the world, I signed up for one-on-one Mandarin lessons.
I am 34 and living in China, and I think this detail is important since my Mandarin-learning niece in Cardiff who is one-fifth my age-corrected my pronunciation over the phone the other day. As an adult language learner, I am curious why our brains pause for what seems like a whole minute to register a transition: when foreign words go from white noise to meaning. For me, it was a mundane commute on the Beijing Metro when the words — “dao le (has arrived)” — rang out on the intercom and seconds later lit up like a luminous bulb in my brain. Had I arrived?
For six hours each week, I am schooled in the Chinese language by a Justin Bieber-loving 24-year-old from China’s eastern Anhui province. On some days, my teacher Leilei makes Taylor Swift buy thrift apples in a Beijing market, on other days, it is just me asking for a plate of gongbao jiding (Kung Pao chicken) which I never get to taste. We teach and learn through an antiquated textbook with way too many pictures of white foreigners asking for things. Outside the classroom, I am more like a ventriloquist who speaks Chinese through a phone making a majority of the vocab I am learning redundant.
At times, our 120-minutes class has gone from hopeless despair to cheerful optimism as my brain, 10 minutes after Leilei has uttered a word, will jumpstart from recognising it. But that’s the thing with a new language learner, we regularly expect everyone around us to erupt into thunderous applause for our everyday triumphs. Instead, Leilei, the young woman from Anhui who worries that her younger brother might be too short to find a girlfriend, will scold me for not reviewing my notes. Driven by a desire to wow her in the only Indian way I know — getting A+ on a written test — I have become her only student who has voluntarily asked for tests. As teachers go, Leilei is badass with her three-second daily voice notes on WeChat asking me to “fuxi” (review) and screaming over me as I lie on the floor with a heavy head: “While you are down there, the Mandarin word for floor is diban.”
In May, we both had an elaborate discussion on Chinese measure words — the Chinese language uses measure words to count nouns — and her text to me that afternoon read: “sometimes, you have to use your brain to remember some things.” That afternoon, we were discussing the measure word “ge” which Leilei said can be used with many nouns but “actually depends.” That is as vague as hope stretches in the world of learning Chinese.
Just when you think you may have mastered the Pinyin, the Romanised version of the Chinese character, there would be another identical one that would mean something entirely different.
The journey so far is like walking down a road and getting hit in the face by vital auxiliary words that is “often misused by foreigners,” or the measure word that is specific to clothes, or a nasal particle “a” which just means a sentence tone. I first heard “a” on a 24-episode Chinese teen love drama that I suffered through where the lead pair took 10 episodes to hold fingers. Holding hands took another three!
I am not sure if learning Chinese is actually helping my Chinese but it appears to have awakened that part of my brain that stores a dusty bagful of languages I once learnt. Take Spanish, for instance, I studied the language intensively for two years, but haven’t spoken a word in over a decade. This year, my brain pushes Spanish words onto my lips as I desperately tap my forehead into throwing up Chinese words instead.
I have also fallen into an analytical rabbit hole over the process of how I learnt the languages I think, speak and report in. Many times, I have thought back to my 10-year-old self in a Chennai school with my head hanging in shame in Hindi class. I felt humiliated for not understanding what my teacher was asking me, and, then, too, my brain registered the way the red pen had been stretched into an ‘F’ on my test paper. Nearly 25 years later in Beijing, maidaan (a field in Hindi) helps me remember maidan (bill) at a restaurant.
This Sunday, I will write the second level of a standardised Chinese test where I have upped the vocab stakes from 150 to 300 words. I may not know my measure words, but I know how to correctly identify uniquely Chinese advisory notes when the weather turns: “Tai leng le. Duo he reshui. (It is very cold. Drink more hot water).”
As for telling those compelling stories, I may have a million more mountains to cross, but I’d be happy if I can one day understand elevator jokes in a Beijing high-rise when I am packed into the crowd during rush hour as I hurtle down from the 23rd floor. When that happens, and I know it will, I will probably imagine thunderous applause.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Hanging on to every word’