Catching Fragments

I just realized something that makes Mandarin a much harder language to pick up. I understand Spanish. For the most part, the language is similar to English, and I can pick out words to figure out what is going on. The grammar isn’t as important as the words. Tacos are always tacos. Bonita, bueno, listo, quieres. There are a dozen words that you can pick up and figure out a sentence. The words are a starting point, a way to open the door before you really understand.

The problem with Mandarin is that there are fewer words, fewer sounds, and the tones aren’t always easy to differentiate. “Jiu,” can mean only, old, therefore, and a dozen other things. Grammar gives the word context, and without knowing where the word is in a sentence it is harder to pick out any meaning. The position of the word matters, more than it does in English or Spanish.

The worst part is that it’s hard to ask about what you heard. I can ask what is said, but I can’t easily explain what I heard to them and have them fill in the blanks. I heard part of the problem here is that if you don’t look Asian, people switch to English automatically. If you speak Mandarin to them, it’s not what they expect, and they get confused.

That reminded me of San Francisco, when I heard English but couldn’t identify the language. I don’t really understand how the mind works in multiple languages. It just switches back and forth, and sometimes fills in the blanks with whatever language it feels comfortable with. It’s like a smart but lazy employee, using what’s familiar instead of doing the job right.

I can remember entire speeches in English, moments from decades ago, but learning a new language requires endless repetition and work. It takes discipline, or at least necessity to keep the information in there. There is always some resistance, something to fight to learn a skill like this. Sometimes it’s like catching smoke, other times it’s an obsession. There is no reason, just an endless flow.

I can see how easy it would be to turn it into a war against myself. Trying brute force and trickery because it takes the least effort emotionally and psychologically. That’s the problem with brute force. I find it’s an intellectual laziness for me. What I choose against what I have always been.

I have made peace with some of my demons, but that just leaves the stronger ones to battle. In some ways it’s like having children around. Loud is easy, silence is suspicious. The quieter they become, the more I’m sure they’re working against me. That’s usually when I eat the most junk food.

I talk to so many people about language, and the idea is easy, but the reality is practice. Even when the practice is easy, it is always something that I would rather not be doing. Even when I enjoy it, I would still rather be watching movies and relaxing. It’s only looking back that I can really see what sloth has cost me.

We begin new each day. Looking back to what should have been and forward to what should be. I think the one thing I really hold onto now is that neither really matter. It’s all just practice.

 

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