Monday, July 25, 2005

Marking progress

For me, the greatest joy in studying a widely spoken language is slowly being able to understand more and more of what I hear around me. I had never experienced it until fairly recently, despite my lifelong love of languages, since my first three linguistic endeavors were in German, Latin, and ancient Greek; two of which are no longer spoken at all and one of which is not that commonly heard on the street, especially in the Kansas town where I grew up. But it is a great joy indeed. The comprehension brings satisfaction, of course, but being able to understand native speakers is also immediate proof that what I am studying is real and not just stuff fabricated in a classroom.

During my early Spanish studies, I'd often set my radio to a Spanish station for ear training. At first, the only thing I could comprehend was station identification: "¡Cien punto tres, Radio Romántica!" Then I started getting more and more of the music (love songs involve limited vocabulary in any language, apparently), then the commercials, then finally the rapid chatter of the DJs. In my mind it was like viewing an interlaced GIF, where you get sparse stripes of the picture, bits and pieces which give you a rough idea of what you're seeing, then more details as the image slowly fills in. Four years after I first started tuning to that station, I now understand anywhere from 80-100% of what I hear, depending on how carefully I'm listening. It's a satisfying sign of progress.

I'm still at the loading stage in my Mandarin studies. At work, many of the discussions held between my overwhelmingly Chinese colleagues are conducted in Mandarin, and by combining the fragments I do understand with the English technical terms that are sprinkled in, I can usually get an idea of what people are talking about. The Pimsleur audio course I'm using has been criticized for teaching non-useful Mandarin, that which is spoken only in Beijing and which is overly formal or florid. Until last week, the phrases I'd learned in my course and subsequently overheard at work (e.g. "is it too big?", "tomorrow I'll...") were too short to substantiate or undermine these claims. But one phrase I've learned and like is yī lù shùn fēng, "bon voyage." With a literal translation of "favorable wind," it does sound like one of those poetic things that people never actually say. Imagine my excitement, therefore, when my manager happened to be walking right past my cubicle as she bid farewell to one of our Taiwanese colleagues who'd been visiting for the week. Sure enough, I heard, "Yī lù shùn fēng!" I immediately thought, "Yes! It's real!"

The interlaced GIF continues to load, but I can already tell it's going to be an exciting picture.

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