I have lived in Beijing for almost two years and my Chinese is, well, terrible.
My partner is Chinese-born, Australian raised, and though his reading and writing are pretty poor (sorry honey), his speaking is damn good. I’m constantly being told “But your partner is Chinese, that must help.” No it does not, and if people say that to me one more time I will scream. For sheer ease and efficiency, he performs most of the language intensive chores such as banking and anything over the phone, leaving me and my poor Chinese to struggle limply behind him.
Having a Chinese speaker in the house means all the responsibility to learn is taken away. I know he will always be there to save me from myself, or save unsuspecting Chinese people from me. Having the confidence to refuse help and do things by yourself is the first step to really learning a language.
Though I long for the day when someone will tell me that they became fluent by sleeping-in and reading Vogue, the advice I always get from Chinese speaking expats is this: Get over your fear, immerse yourself in the language and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
With one semester of Chinese language under my belt, I have heeded the advice of the wise ones and have finally decided to conquer my fear of speaking Chinese. I will set myself a weekly task to be performed entirely and humiliatingly in Chinese. From calling a restaurant to see if they have highchairs, to explaining peanut allergies at a Chinese hospital. I will put my shame aside for the greater good of beijingkids readers.
You may ask what this has to do with you? Every week on the beijingkids blog, I will offer concise language tips and advice on how to muddle your way through day-to-day life in Beijing with minimal Mandarin skills. Not great Mandarin, not classy Mandarin but bare bones, at-least-they-understood-what-I-meant Mandarin.
I am not a language expert and I have no idea what I’m saying most of the time, but neither do many expats. It’s about time we push aside our guilt and embarrassment and embrace the fact that Chinese is tough, but we are tougher.
Got something to say about your Mandarin experiences or lack thereof? Head on over to the beijingkids forum.
Flickr photo published under the Creative Commons licensed content.