I always tell my Chinese friends—and everyone else for that matter—that my Chinese only reaches a tolerable fluency once I’ve had a few cocktails. All of a sudden my tones are perfect, my vocabulary is impressive, I’m witty and entertaining. Basically, I turn into the Bing Crosby of the Chinese language.
Learning Mandarin is no easy task, but you can be your own worst enemy. It’s hard to accept the humiliation that inevitably comes with trying to string a sentence together in a foreign language, but you can’t let the fear of humiliation stop you. After months of Chinese classes where I was expected to take part in class discussions about sand (I kid you not), I was going nowhere fast. I’d stumble through some basic sentences to get by, but to be honest I spent more time staring into the bottom of my coffee thermos than practicing my Chinese.
It was during a late night out with my partner when I discovered the cure for my stage fright. We were happily ordering our second round of margaritas, chomping away on our Tex-Mex, when I found myself asking him questions in Chinese. Though my partner is Chinese-Australian, we only ever speak English. I think this has something to do with his impatience and my dismal Chinese conversational skills. So there I am, asking him the most rudimentary questions: “What time did you start work today?”, “Is the food good?”, “What are you doing tomorrow?” For some reason, my best Mandarin comes in the form of questions and I was going to use every question in my language arsenal.
Though a little surprised that I’d managed to get beyond “hello”, my partner obligingly answered in Chinese. And that, my friends, was my first Chinese conversation. Though some of the credit goes to me, I must acknowledge the huge role that my margarita played in allowing me to cast aside my performance anxiety.
But surely, there must be other ways to help you feel comfortable speaking Chinese. Alcohol can’t be the answer to all of our language problems, right?
Try using some of these simple tricks:
1) Read aloud. I don’t just mean bedtime stories, I mean everything you see: street signs, menus, subway stops. This will help you make the mental connection between the character you’re seeing, the context you’re seeing it in, and the way your mouth moves when you’re reading it.
2) Talk as you do. This is an especially good technique to get you familiar with talking about household items. Instead of just putting something in the fridge, say it out loud (in Chinese of course), “I’m putting the milk in the fridge.” The more you do this, the more familiar the words will become.
3) Keep a vocabulary diary. Every important word you hear, write it down. This is just for you; forget the characters and just concentrate on the pinyin. Not quite sure what the tones are? That’s OK, you can look it up online when you get home. Aside from expanding your vocabulary, this technique will help your listening skills and get you used to tones.
Now go forth my pupils. Have a glass of red wine and get cracking on your conversational skills.