I have been taking three two-hour Chinese lessons per week with Grace since about the second or third week we arrived in Wuxi. It seems that the more I learn, the more I realise how much I still have to learn. I haven’t even started learning to read properly yet – just learning to speak is hard enough.
When you first start, you have to learn the different tones (there are four main ones, but actually a few more subtle ones), then you learn the initials and finals. Once you get the hang of that you learn a few nouns and verbs and think you are getting to grips with it. However, then you start learning the grammar rules and everything gets turned upside down. The way the language is structured is just nothing like English, either in word order or in the way words are used – for example there is a different word to mean you are going to do something depending on whether it is definite or just an idea.
I am sure a Chinese student of English would encounter a similar problem in reverse, but at least they don’t have to worry about blummin tones!
I can now just about order basic food and drink, buy fruit and vegetables and ask for directions. I do need to build up my confidence in speaking to people, though. John doesn’t care – he just tries out any new word he learns at the earliest opportunity. This can lead to misunderstandings, for example, in the first week or so he knocked into someone in the canteen and said ‘you’re welcome (bu keqi)’ rather than ‘I’m sorry (dui buqi)’. I like to be a bit more sure of what I am saying.
Learning written words is essential in Wuxi as there is hardly ever pinyin or English on signs or menus. There are online flash cards you can use to learn (e.g. here) but as soon as I learn one set, I forget the previous one! Hopefully after two years I will have made some progress.