Saturday, June 21, 2008

Comments, Links

John's post on overhearing a conversation between two old men sparked a stream of comments from readers about how they look forward to the day when their Chinese is good enough to eavesdrop on random Chinese-language conversations. This reminded me of a short episode that took place tonight during dinner that made me think of a certain milestone in language learning.

First, the set-up. Last Sunday on Fathers Day, Jodi gave me a "day off" from taking care of Charlotte by taking her to a friend's house to play all day. This gave me lots of time to spend on the computer catching up on news, to go to a NoiShanghai concert at Live Bar in the afternoon, and end the evening with a walk through Raffles City and down East Nanjing Road. On Nanjing Road I sat down to eat a snack from BreadTalk and because I was reading 慢船去中国 I ended up chatting with a group of those guys that glide around trying to sell you those skates with the LED lights embedded in the wheels that light up with you skate. One young guy was complaining to me about how it's hard enough to say things in English, but it's so much harder to understand what people are saying back to you. I distinctly remember going through that phase in learning Chinese, and one day realizing that I actually could understand what people were answering in response to my questions.

So at dinner tonight something happened that reminded me that my Chinese is still nowhere near perfect and that I'm still going through these phases and coming out of them, only more slowly than before. When I arrived at Tanggong, a Hong Kong restaurant in the Super Brand Mall, Jodi, Anna and Charlotte were there waiting for me. They had ordered drinks but were still waiting for me to arrive to finalize the food order. Jodi had a glass of water in front of her when I arrived and asked the waiter for a refill of 温水, since the glass was almost empty. Eventually the waiter brought the glass back full of freshly boiled water but since Jodi had specifically asked for lukewarm water so that she could drink it immediately she sent it back and had them bring a new glass at the correct temperature.

Later during the meal I noticed that the glass had been drained again so I called another waiter over and asked for 温水 again, adding a "要温水哦,不要开水" to make sure that he got the order right where the previous waiter had failed. So after he brought back another glass of piping hot water and we had to send it back again, I was hit by a realization: in the past, I would have assumed that I hadn't spoken clearly enough, or that I had mispronounced a word, or that the cause of the mistake had been somewhere in my Chinese; but today I was SO DAMN SURE that I had gotten it right, that the realization that at one point in my life I would have surely blamed this mistake on my Chinese did not even pop into my head until after the episode had finished.

That's not to say that my oral Chinese is great. I still stutter, forget tones and find myself at a loss for words pretty often. But it's a great confidence booster to have a realization like this.

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