I’d spent the night before finding tones in my dictionary for every individual character in the essay (not a minor task), so this morning we spent a half hour translating it together, determining the difference between ‘scene’ and ‘landscape’ in English, and bearing with my ‘slower-than-Tutor-Eric-can-talk-in-his-announcer-voice-speed’ reading of an article about the design of a notable Chinese garden park. When I do my Chinese homework, I worry that I’m investing so much of my time discerning the structural and phonetic meanings of characters that I don’t bother learning the semantic values of the words themselves; this leads to the disheartening feeling that the information itself might not ever be salient if I’m not really understanding it but learning it for the purpose of getting by in class- memorizing how to say something for the short term versus how to say it and know what you mean (and that you meant it that way) are very different.
“Give this to your TA Echar.”
“I bet you she will say it very differently.”
“What, like she can’t read it as fluently as you do?”
“She won’t read it melodiously. She will read it with no tones. The majority of Chinese people do not read things properly.”
“So what am I learning?”
“How to speak melodiously.”
“So you want me to learn to speak Chinese better than the Chinese.”
“Yes. You already are learning.”
Even just in the last few days, both Professor Yue and Eric have noted that my tones are getting much better. Even though I’m feeling like I’m not really giving the language my everything- it’s just so overwhelming and I don’t feel confident in my abilities at all anymore- the fact that the bar is being set so high for me means that even when I feel like I’m just going through the motions and not really progressing, I’m doing more than I think I am. I give it my all in class, always, but it’s hard to motivate yourself! I speak Chinese with people when I have the option though, because this really is an amazing opportunity for me to finally get ‘flucent’- I should want to be able to look back on these four months and really know that I tried. And I know I’m trying, because words I ‘knew’ before are much more concrete in my mind now- I really know them and their tones, the last part of the puzzle. I used to just say stuff and hope it came out right- now I know when it’s right (or more right than it used to be- just because I know how to do something right doesn’t mean my voice box does what I intend for it to do).
The more advanced you get, the more intricate the language becomes, the more you realize how much left there is to learn- but knowing that you’re intending to learn the language better than most people makes it feel like even if you have trouble, you’re still pushing yourself relative to the rest of the population.