Thursday, December 06, 2012

Accidents of history

Although in my intermittent series on this topic I have mainly analysed practical reasons why I have not bothered to learn much Chinese, I suspect that fundamentally what has most discouraged me from making such efforts were issues of timing and circumstance. If the history of my engagement with China had been slightly different, perhaps I would have put in the hundreds - thousands! - of hours necessary to become fairly good at Chinese, but as it is.....

These are some of the factors that I think have led me down the path of abstinence.

I have lived exclusively in Beijing, and I arrived here in the early Noughties.
As the capital, and the upcoming Olympic host city, Beijing developed at dizzying speed during those years. When I first touched down here, very few people - not even staff in hotels, bars, and so on - spoke any English. But within a few years there had been a remarkable change: now almost everyone in a service job has at least a modicum of English, and it's becoming more and more common to find even regular folks, small shopkeepers and such, who have at least a smattering. The need to speak Chinese for daily survival was fairly low here; and, more importantly, it was rapidly diminishing.

I had been here before.
Having first visited China 7 or 8 years earlier, when just about NO-ONE spoke any English, I had experienced a very stressful and challenging language environment - a situation that forced you to learn some Chinese. Even in 2001, the impetus to learn the language in Beijing was much, much less. I think it was the force of that contrast that robbed me of the necessary motivation to study.

And that had been in the south.
I'd spent most of that trip in the south central province of Hubei, and so the little bit of Chinese I'd picked up was coloured by regional idiosyncrasies. When I tried to use it in Beijing, people laughed at my "funny accent" - it was very discouraging.

And then I'd gone back to Hong Kong.
That is an especially blunt reminder of how linguistically varied China is. Cantonese is a very different language, and, back then at any rate, Mandarin Chinese seemed to be more alien to most people down there than English. After spending three months struggling to learn a language, it is a brutal rebuff to be reminded that in large parts of the country it will do you no good at all.

I was flat broke.
Lessons cost money. More importantly, they cost time. It's next-to-impossible to study Chinese effectively unless you have a lot of spare time to devote to it. Most of my friends who've achieved a good level in the language started off their time in China with a spell of full-time study. And they were able to do this because they'd come here with some money in their pockets; many of them were only just out of university, and were still getting a little financial help from their parents. I came here without a penny to my name (quite literally), and had to work every hour god sent for the first few years to try to re-establish some financial stability for myself. Language study didn't get a look-in. And, by the time I'd built up a bit of a financial safety net and was starting to enjoy a bit more free time... I had learned to get by without Chinese.

And then I started blogging!
Yes, yes - if I'd spent a fraction of the time that I've devoted to these blogs over the last six years to studying Chinese instead, I might be getting quite good by now, at least in a basic conversational way (reading and writing was always going to be beyond me). But you know what? Blogging is more fun.

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