Language Lover asks:
How can I learn Mandarin from my Chinese boyfriend?
That’s easy, of course — pillow talk. 😉
Yeah, right. If it were that easy, I wouldn’t have sounded like such a moron in Mandarin back in 1999, when I dated my first Chinese boyfriend.
He famously had this dream where we’d speak Chinese one day, English the next. But who were we kidding? He was an English major, comfortably fluent in my language, and I was drowning every time I strayed past “Ni Hao” and everything else in my Lonely Planet phrasebook. Even worse, I felt so embarrassed, awkward and inadequate every time I even attempted to say something in Chinese before him. So we didn’t even go there, and just built our relationship in English. Great for us, devastating for my Chinese.
Things get tough when you’re an adult fumbling towards fluency, according to this study:
…children are praised for their efforts in speaking a language, regardless of accuracy, and have ample time and opportunity to listen and learn before producing. In contrast, adults are exposed to a much more complex language from the onset, and are expected to figure out (and produce) accordingly. They are often embarrassed by their lack of mastery of the language and they may develop a sense of inadequacy after experiences of frustration in trying to say exactly what they mean. Such frustration affects self-evaluation, possibly increasing anxiety, and negative impacting on motivation and perseverance.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t eventually be good enough to pass for a native speaker, as the same study asserts:
…age is not the critical factor in reaching high levels of L2 [second language] proficiency…. Rather, personal motivation, choice and agency seem to be more crucial factors in ultimate attainment. Indeed, expert L2 users themselves often distinguish between a point in their lives when they first encountered their L2 and a point when they ‘really’ started to learn it.
So, if you’re in a relationship with a native Chinese speaker and want to become fluent, start out with these indispensable tools — chutzpah, and the uncontrollable desire to learn.
But that’s not all. You also need your partner’s support. Remember how I mentioned that first Chinese boyfriend had a dream of a bilingual relationship? That’s all it was — a dream. He never provided the support and encouragement to help me overcome those moments when I just wanted to die after a really harrowing faux pas in Chinese. If you have a partner that makes fun of your Mandarin or would rather play his soccer video game than help you recognize a character, well, you might as well be dreaming when it comes to having a bilingual relationship.
So what does it mean to be supportive in your language studies?
He or she could do the most obvious — teach you, for example. Set a specific schedule for the classes, and make sure he or she conducts the class almost entirely in Mandarin. It might sound tough on you, but it’s the best way to build fluency and confidence in the language.
Of course, don’t leave your honey hanging on how to teach you — give them a guide, for goodness sake! Since Mandarin has exploded as the MUST learn language for business, textbooks abound. I used Conversational Chinese 301 (with audio recordings), but you might find something even better at your local bookstore. You could try a virtual study program, such as ChinesePod, which has downloadable audio lessons with PDF transcripts. Or you might just opt for the ever-popular Pimsleur Chinese (Mandarin) I, a mostly audio-based program that comes with notes. Try to keep it simple, and, at first, consider just focusing on speaking and listening, until you get the hang of it.
If you’re a complete Mandarin Chinese virgin, let your partner ease you on in (pun intended, shamelessly so) with pronunciation practice. But be careful — not every Chinese speaks proper Mandarin, which is really based on the local dialect of Beijing. My Chinese husband doesn’t, because he’s from rural Zhejiang (and he has even proclaimed to my friends in the US that Mandarin is not his first language). If you must learn proper Mandarin, double-check it with your audio recordings.
Make sure you set aside time to practice together — completely in Chinese. Maybe that’s during your lesson time, or maybe you do it in addition to lessons. But just do it, and be ruthless about keeping things in Mandarin — even if it’s as simplistic as parroting dialogues, or describing how many people you have in your family.
Don’t forget language fun with Chinese pop culture. Have your Chinese partner help translate and provide pinyin for his favorite songs. Or, better yet, save him or her time by downloading them from one of the websites listed here, or watching a “learn Chinese” music video, such as this subtitled one for Jay Chou’s Dao Xiang.
Live together? You can learn together, too. All of those boring daily rituals have names in Mandarin Chinese, so have your significant other teach you. Some of the first words I learned from John were 刷牙 (brush your teeth) and 熄灯 (lights out).
And, of course, there’s pillow talk, too (as in, how do you say THAT in Chinese?). 😉
What advice do you have for Language Lover?
Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.