Paris mon amour!
How I finally conquered foreign languages
As I detailed on “How to (do not) learn French“, when I started the University I had zero knowledge of English (my high school could only afford bad French teachers). Moreover, I was convinced languages were not my thing.
During the University it didn’t get better. In order to graduate, we only had to pass a simple English test (that is there were no lessons) that was full of questions such as this one:
Complete the following sentence:
“I want … on the street.”
a) to pee b) was peeing c) pees
Choose the correct answer.
Nevertheless, I didn’t know anything about English and I had to copy the test.
I swear, this was the only time I copied a test! I was that desperate…
Anyway, when I was about to graduate I decided to leave Italy, discovering the world and all that stuff…
But I was not that brave and I chose France, the only country where I could hope to understand the language.
The day I arrived in Paris was a mess: I got stuck at Charles De Gaulle airport because I didn’t know how to use the subway (la mythique RER) and, when I finally got on the train, I got lost. That day not only I realized how bad my French was, I also understood I didn’t know how to travel. Anyway, after four or five hours I finally managed to reach my new dorm and…
…in less than two months I was able to talk, watch movies and read books. All that in French!
Obviously I had developed strong basis during my war with Adolfa, my old beloved teacher (see “How to (do not) learn French” for details). The problem was that I had never tried to actually SPEAK French. This was not required at school, the only skill required at school was… spelling!
But in France I was forced to talk. The other option was to starve.
In the following two years I also learned English and Spanish and now when I speak these languages I feel as comfortable as when I speak Italian. Yeah, I know my English pronunciation and writing skills are not the best but hey, Mario Bros also has an accent…
The funny thing is that the total amount of time I’ve invested on “traditional” study for English has been three months, when I applied for an intensive course in London City (I went there in 2007 and 2009, I also spent a month in Dublin in 2008).
Trafalgar Square, London City.
At my school in Baker Street there was no “zero level” so I was placed with the beginners. The first day I entered the classroom, the thing that most impressed me was a huge panel on the wall:
“Electronic dictionary are not allowed in this classroom.”
“Who the f*ck is going to have an electronic dictionary?” (Remember, it was still the pre-smartphones geologic era).
But then five Japanese girls arrived, and all of the them were equipped with such a e-dictionary… the great grand-father of the iPad!
And that’s was all: the classroom was composed by me and five Japanese girls.
And I must say it was a funny experience, mostly because every time the teacher explained the difference between “bigger” and “biggest” or any other aspect or English grammar, all the girls used to do what at that time was an unusual “noise” to me:
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” And I was again like… WTF???
Now I know this is the Asian way to communicate they understand, but at the time I was… confused, let’s say.
Anyway, after the three months where I learned the basis with the Japanese girls, I only related on movies, novels and my social life to improve my English. No more grammar or other boring stuff…
About Spanish, it has been even simpler, almost automatic I would say. I used to have a lot of amigos hispanoparlantes. Well I still have them, just I cannot see them that often anymore…
So I was forced to listen to them talking in Spanish all the time, usually against my will (HDP!)
One day I got drunk while I was in a bar with my friend RM and I started to speak in “Spanish”. Of course I was not speaking reeeal Español, it was more like Itañol with some French words in the middle. A Romanian guy friend of mine used to say that I speak as the hunchbacked of The name of the rose, Umberto Eco’s most famous book. And he was right.
But with the time I got better and better and today if I go to Spain and I claim:
“Soy Argentino! Y vos?” they will believe me… How much time I put on learning Spanish? I never opened a Spanish grammar on my life.
But let’s come to Chinese…
My biggest failure: Chinese language
Given my past successes with languages, I thought I could come to China and learn Mandarin the same way I learned English or Spanish: watching movies, asking questions, hanging out with local people, practically by osmosis. It turned out I was wrong. I was reaaaaally wrong!
I guess Chinese is too far away from Italian (or English, for what it matters).
You get thousands of characters that look like the same and should all be pronounced as qi, ji or xi, that for my ear sound quite the same thing.
Add to the equation a phonetic that has nothing in common with Latin languages (except for the word mama, which is kind of cute); words that have the same pronunciation but different meaning depending on their tone (for the profanes, in English a different tone expresses a different emotion as anger or happiness, in Chinese tones influence the meaning so that shí means “time” or “ten” and shì means “market”, “to be” and about other 10,000 concepts) and a slimy grammar that at the beginning seems easy but every time you think you got it, it surprises you with a new use of the particles 了 (le) or 着 (zhe);
There is a legend between guys who are just starting learning Chinese that goes this way:
“Chinese is difficult to pronounce but has no grammar.”
If you want to get a taste of what Chinese grammar really implies, check the definition of “了” (le) on the Chinese Grammar Wiki.
So, coming back to learning Chinese, in 2010 I even followed a sixteen weeks Chinese course: it was on my contract and at the beginning I thought I was going to enjoy it.
I was wrong. Again. Judging from the results, the course was almost useless. No excuses, I guess the main reason was I’m to lazy to learn a language by following a teacher’s instructions. That’s too boring. I also have a couple of alibis.
First, instead of teaching us survival Chinese (order food, ask for the toilet, pick up a girl…), they were teaching us technical vocabulary I was not going to use in daily life so that there was no way I could remember an only word. It was hard to keep studying such a words as “cd-rom” and “work meeting” knowing I was not able to order chicken instead of fish.
Also, all my classmates were from Europe or U.S. so that we could easily communicate in English (well, more or less).
This is the best advice I can give to you, fresh meet ready to learn Chinese in school: make sure your class is jam packed with Korean, Japanese and Russian as they usually do not speak English: it will force you to practice Chinese.
So, after my short Chinese course was finished, instead of keep going I just given up, hoping I could get Chinese by osmosis…
Fast forward till today, I can have a short conversation with the butcher or the greengrocer and even order most of food I like at the restaurant. However, it is still normal that I order some watermelon (xīguā) and I get a straw (xīguǎn).
Also, I barely understand when people talk to me and I have no clue about Chinese grammar. I learned some more grammar at the school in 2010 but after more than one year of walking around without using it, it’s all gone… And I (sadly) understood you need to master Chinese grammar if you want to create sentences that have more than four words and still make sense to local people.
Finally, I’m unable to understand a song, a movie or even a newspaper.
Now, I think live in China is a blessing and if I don’t learn Chinese now I will regret it all my life. Or maybe it’s only a matter of ego: Furio vs Mandarin…
No matters the reason, I came up with a plan to finally learn Chinese… which I will detail on my next post!
[Update (my plan): How to learn Chinese fast: my (lazy) way]