Posts Tagged ‘mandarin opportunities’

Eat. Drink. Mandarin. in Singapore

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: , ,

At the beginning of February I spent a few days in Singapore and then moved on to South Africa. As I spent almost the entire month of February abroad, visiting family and friends, I didn’t really study much at all. I couldn’t exactly prioritise my Mandarin over spending time with family and friends I hadn’t seen for ages. (I progressed only with about a 100 characters in Heisig but maintained my Anki revision habit nearly every day during that month.)

At the end of the holiday I reflected that I felt like Julia Roberts’ character in Eat, Pray, Love but with the emphasis on Eat.

I had one or two expectations about my time in Singapore: I knew I was going to enjoy eating in Singapore. In my opinion – there is one place in the world where can you answer with “I’m going to eat!” if people ask you what you’re going to do. If Singapore is the place in question, you DO NOT have to feel like a glutton when you respond with an answer like that!

I knew I’d get limited opportunities too for speaking Mandarin in Singapore – most people have excellent English in 新加坡 (Xin1jia1po1). So to be honest, I spoke very little Mandarin during my trip. Then again – Singapore is very dear to me – so dear that I really just wanted to enjoy the place rather than get frustrated with the fact that I didn’t get enough opportunity to speak Mandarin. Could it be that I love Singapore more than I love Mandarin?

If you’re interested – please keep reading – I’m sharing with you some of my (few) Mandarin highlights:

Zoo directions:
One occasion required me to ask ask a couple for directions to get the 118 bus from Ang Mo Kio MRT to the zoo. They told me they couldn’t speak English and I proceeded to ask them for directions in Mandarin. It really was a very short conversation but believe me – I felt very happy that I was able to ask that in another language – in Mandarin.

Inpromptu dinner conversation:
I was having dinner at Food Republic and had a pretty decent but short Mandarin conversation with two other diners. (One of these diners were actually from mainland China’s Fujian province.)

Sourcing Mandarin materials:
No speaking for this one but I visited a huge Japanese book shop Kinokuniya at the Takashimaya shopping centre in Orchard Road (they’ve got a huge Mandarin selection).

I only bought one book – ‘Making out in Chinese’ by Ray Daniels and I have to say that this has got to be one of the coolest books I’ve ever bought. I’m referring to the content not the cover. When I read the book on the plane or took it out at coffee shops, I imagine I got a few funny looks – but oh well anything in the name of Mandarin fluency right? :) At least now I know how to say:

  • I’m mad as hell! (我火大了/ wo3 huo3 da4 le) and
  • You’ve gone too far (太过分了 / tai4 guo4 fen1 le!

Useful right?

There’s a lot more packed into this little book but out of politeness I’ve left out some of those learnings and leave it to you to discover if you’re keen. Very useful little book in my opinion and should be a quick read as it’s just 96 pages in total.

Asking directions
I had a discussion in the MRT with a Singaporean about learning Chinese and she also stopped me from getting off at the wrong MRT station. (I was on my way to Raffles Mall at City Hall but nearly got off at Raffles Place instead. I did get off at Raffles Place the next day when I had to go to Lau Pa Sat for another eating adventure.) The conversation with her was about 40% in Mandarin and 60% in English. She told me that Chinese students found Mandarin really hard and that it was one of the most difficult subjects they had to study in school. My answer was ‘Great – then there is hope for us laowai!’. (The way I see it you can either you can feel intimidated by conversations like that or look at it optimistically and tell yourself you can do it too.)

Conversations with hotel staff
I had a discussion with one Chinese lady at the hotel – it turned out that I was able to read more Mandarin than her – and I don’t read much at all! I guess this means – whichever way I want to look at it – the bits I do get to study helps and it does pay off.

Like I said I knew I could have done more – I could have seeked out conversations by listening to people, checking their name badges or used riskier tactics like guessing :) etc. but as I’ve hinted before – this time around, Mandarin was just one of the things on my agenda – Not at all my soul purpose for visiting Singapore.

Have you ever visited Singapore or any other Asian country or city where they speak great English? Any place where Mandarin takes the back seat? If so where and were you seeking out Mandarin conversations at all? Or like me – were you there because of your love for that place and what it has to offer and did it supersede seeking out speaking opportunities in Mandarin? :)

Accidental Conversations in Mandarin

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: ,

What language do you speak?

In China I didn’t hesitate too much when it came to starting conversations in Mandarin – as long as I sort of had the vocab for the scenario I would have given it a go.

There are several reasons for this: firstly in China it’s the expected thing to try and speak the language if you’re going to live there for a period of time. Secondly, foreigners who accompany you, won’t necessarily laugh at your attempts – after all, you’re sort of in the same boat as they are, which means that they can either be better than you at speaking Mandarin and you can listen to them and learn from them or they can correct you. It really is a kind of a win-win situation.

Starting conversations with Chinese people in a western country is a whole different ball game and much harder for several reasons: you need to do more research about the people you attempt to speak Mandarin with and you need to make fewer assumptions… I speak from personal experience and I will not go into too much detail… but will try and explain my thinking below:

  • Sometimes it’s not always apparent whether the Chinese speakers you meet speak Mandarin or Cantonese or even whether they are Cambodian or Vietnamese Chinese.
  • Sometimes they don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese at all because it was never used at home or there simply wasn’t a need to study the language in a western country. Sometimes asking someone with this kind of heritage and background whether they speak Mandarin or Cantonese can actually touch a nerve – and is a question sometimes best avoided in my experience so I’m careful about asking.
  • Occasionally the Mandarin or Cantonese speakers I meet, don’t appear eager to speak Mandarin to English speakers. As one such speaker pointed out to me, they’re in a Western country and are often here to practice their English.

Even on the odd occasion that I do identify a Mandarin speaker successfully, it’s not that easy for me to just start a conversation with them. I for example don’t feel comfortable speaking Mandarin in front of other English speakers here in New Zealand. I’m not too certain why but I think these are a few possible reasons:

  • I don’t want to be seen as a show-off (even though my Mandarin could hardly achieve show-off status.)
  • Speaking a foreign language draws attention to oneself, and I don’t want to bring attention to myself nor make the person I’m having a conversation with uncomfortable especially when we’re both surrounded by complete strangers.

For these reasons, I don’t have many conversations in Mandarin really… and chance Mandarin conversations are few and far between.

Today however presented a pleasant surprise:

I only occasionally take the bus to work and whenever I do take the bus at my usual time in the mornings, I almost always see a Chinese woman with her young daughter. I normally smile and say hello but never start an actual conversation (for the reasons I outlined above.) Today was no different. Even though I never in the past initiated a conversation with her, I’d still strain my ears in the hope that I’d catch bits here and there when they speak in Mandarin.

On the way back home from work, I took a seat in the second last row and was reviewing some Heisig characters I learned the day before. (I find learning characters on the bus far more comfortable than listening to podcasts – the noise in the bus normally means I can’t actually hear a word unless I give myself permanent hearing loss so I normally opt to entertain myself with reading material instead.)

The bus filled up pretty quickly and soon someone sat down next to me. I looked up, smiled and said hello. It was the same Chinese lady I always see at my bus stop. She returned my greeting. At some point I felt her eyes on me and my book and she almost immediately asked me whether I was studying Chinese and thus our first ever real conversation had begun. (About bloody time too seeing that I’ve been aware of her for nearly a year :) ) Well… it turns out she is from Nanjing – an awesome culturally rich city in China where I spent the year of 2008.

We exchanged a few words in Mandarin and I actually learned a few things in Mandarin from her. As I’m completely out of practice I didn’t strut my Mandarin stuff nearly as well as I would have liked to, but really I have only myself to blame that she assumed I was a COMPLETE beginner.

After all, she was explaining the word 我 to me (and just in case you were wondering – no I didn’t need an explanation for that one specifically – perhaps for others I’ll admit – but not that one :) ). Regardless, it was more important to me that I make a connection with someone and learn a bit about them too rather than solely use the opportunity to practice my Mandarin with them on a single occasion, so we just discussed learning Mandarin in general and I showed her my Heisig book and how the method works and we spoke a bit about Nanjing and the various universities. I will make sure though that I’m better prepared next time and have the confidence to speak a bit more when I see her again!

Learning how to say ‘to take the bus’ in Mandarin is not the only thing I got out of this “accidental conversation”. This weekend I‘ll be going over to her house to borrow some of her daughter’s Chinese books and some audio CDs. She also told me that the Chinese embassy here in New Zealand gives Mandarin books to Chinese citizens for free in the hope that this free resource will help encourage their overseas diaspora in learning Mandarin. I have also made a new acquaintance – someone who seems friendly and interested to help where she can in my cause in learning Mandarin – way more than you’d ever expect from such a chance encounter…

If like me, you find it difficult to start conversations or only suspect someone of being a Mandarin speaker and need confirmation first before you ask them out of the blue, then my suggestion is have some Mandarin resource readily available e.g. Pleco dictionary on Ipad. For the brave it could be audio playing audibly on your Ipod or for the less adventurous, some makeshift Mandarin material e.g. any piece of paper with some hanzi scribbled on it. Once you’ve got that ready: for the more extroverted kind – flaunt it quite openly or for the introverted ones – gently place it in someone’s line of sight and see if you can start a conversation that way :)

I honestly didn’t do any flaunting / strategic planning today to get a conversation going – today’s conversation was a purely incidental one for me as my Heisig book had been in place and visible before my new acquaintance joined me. Therefore, if you’re in an English speaking country, make the most out of everyday situations, do a little bit of “research”, and be slightly prepared and you just might score yourself some “accidental Mandarin encounters” :) .

As for me – if you’ve got any advice or pointers for me then as always – share your stories or comments with me – PLEASE DO SHARE. Any feedback (or criticism) welcome!