When I sent my child to a Chinese school, I didn’t realise how steep the learning curve would be.
And I didn’t mean for him.
It’s calmed down now, but for the first two months we parents were subjected to reams and reams of daily text messages detailing what the children had done at school, what we had to buy for them, what after school clubs there were available, and yes, what the dreaded homework was for that day.
With the school text books came yet more Chinese that I, as an adult learner of a second language, had never come across. My teacher at Live the Language does not have the time to explain primary school lingo. Her unenviable task is to try and get me through the HSK.
Somehow my teacher got me to understand, “The financial dependence of his family bolstered his immune system so that his internal defences were able to overcome the illness.” But it was now left to me to get over the challenge of how to say “join the dots.”
This is the register of primary school Chinese, that had I not had a dwarf in the house, I would never have faced.
Every language is made up of different so-called registers, whereby a different set of unwritten usage rules is used depending on context. The language in a court of law, say, would be carried out in a totally different register from that in a prison cell.
Knowing how to bargain fluently at Yashow Market is not going to earn you respect if you are trying to discuss the necessity of irrigation trenches in arid regions. Nor vice versa, come to that, but it would be handy to know how to do both and apply them where relevant.
And this was the problem. Where I had learned the character for “irrigation trench,” I hadn’t learned those for “draw a circle around the odd numbers,” or “draw a smiley face on the animals that can jump.”
In fact it should help my woeful attempts in the long run, as I am always being told that one of my many major problems is trying to make things far too complicated.
I am slowly learning that it is not necessary to say, “In order to maintain consistency, select blue and complete the sphere to its perimeter with the selected utensil” when in fact I could just say “Color the circle blue.”
So while I plough my way through the mud that is adult Chinese, and try and navigate through the subtleties of when you can say “after all,” and when you have to instead say, “at the end of the day,” I thank my teacher at Live the Language for patiently supplying endless examples of when to use the right phrases.
I also thank my son’s teachers for the opportunity to learn how to say, “Match the number on the basket with the little rabbit that has munched that many carrots.”
Debbie Mason has lived in Beijing for more than ten years. She thought her Chinese was okay until she realized she could not understand her son and his Chinese playmates. In a bid to try and keep up with her 7-year-old, Debbie is taking Chinese classes at Live the Language. Follow her progress with her blog posts on
Photo by Renato Ganoza of Flickr.