Written by Elizabeth Kennedy (University of Washington), CET Kunming Summer 2019
Sometimes, I trick myself into believing I’m close to fluent. Then, I do something like watch The Lion King to bring me back to reality.
Four short days after signing away the English language, I wrote in my journal, “This is crazy but it’s not even been a week and some of my thoughts are in Chinese.” Sure, they were pretty simple thoughts, using words that I was already very familiar with. But to realize that the voice in your head just said a perfectly normal thought in a very abnormal way surprises me every time it happens, even now, a month later. My journey with language learning has been a winding path of translation frustrations and unexpected conversation wins. Here are a few of the scenic spots I happened upon along the way.
If thinking in a foreign language isn’t the mark of fluency, then surely dreaming is, right? Wrong. Well, maybe. My dreams often have the most mundane plots, such as getting up in the morning, attending class, and talking with people I see everyday in real life. (Except when I have Walking Dead dreams – hit me up if you need an awesome zombie hunter after the apocalypse happens.)
My dreams in Chinese, like my thoughts, started fairly soon after signing the language pledge, but they weren’t all that I had imagined them so be. I expected effortlessly dreaming in Chinese and waking up to realize that the new language came so naturally that I hadn’t even realized I was speaking with friends from home who couldn’t possibly have spoken Chinese in real life. Maybe this kind of dream is the mark of true fluency, but my dream was not like that. I dreamt that I was hanging out with my CET classmates, remembering to abide by the language pledge, and stumbling over a sentence like I do in real life. This dream, and the Chinese dreams I have had since, may not be the hallmark of language mastery. But they are a cool pick-me-up in the morning to remind me that the day ahead is good for me even if it starts too early, Chinese is working magic in my brain even while I sleep, and the effort I put into the language pledge is working.
2.Study abroad is summer school!
I knew this summer would be hard work, but I am here to tell you that signing up for study abroad truly does mean signing up for STUDY abroad. It’s easy to see pictures of your friends on Instagram travelling and to forget that as much fun as it is to study abroad, it is just as much work.
The mindset of my classmates in the program really exemplifies this. Everyone here signed up for an intense program with a language pledge because we want to improve and make the most of our short time in Kunming. After attending four hours of class in the morning, you can find students meeting with teachers at office hours in the evening and studying in the activity room until late.
A new chapter of vocabulary every day is overwhelming at times, but I remind myself that every word and grammar pattern we learn is for a reason. Sometimes, I talk to my roommate and realize that she just used a word that we had learned that very day, and I simultaneously think, “How convenient!” and, “How did I even survive without that word yesterday?” My days in Kunming are long and busy with attending classes, studying, and enjoying extracurriculars like Chinese crafts or Jeet Kwon Do. But the weeks feel short, and the weekend is quickly approaching. Every extra bit of effort I put into learning when it’s hard makes my life that much easier when I’m having fun.
3.One of the moments that makes language-learning worth it
A few weekends ago, some friends and I traveled by high-speed train to Chengdu. The seat next to me switched patrons a number of times, and two of my neighbors noticed the textbook on my tray table and started talking to me.
Answering questions asking if I was a student, where I was from, and where I was going was easy enough, as I had answered these questions many times before. But in the two separate conversations, we ended up talking about things I had never learned in school, with only minimal translation-app usage! How it is possible to talk about movies, dreams, beauty standards, and the lunar calendar, without ever having had a chapter on these subjects in school, is a mystery to me. It is conversations like these that convince me, ever so briefly, that pretty soon here I’ll be fluent, and the times of utter confusion and misunderstanding are in the past.
4.And then I watched The Lion King.
No, Beyoncé does not sing in Chinese in the dubbed version of 狮子王 shī zi wáng (The Lion King). No, there were no subtitles for the dialogue. The songs did have subtitles, but no, I still could not understand them. Thankfully, I already know the plot of this classic Disney film, so I wasn’t completely in the dark.
Plus, it was kind of like a fun puzzle trying to translate the few Chinese words I did recognize back into familiar English lyrics. But all in all, I think I understood five percent of the dialogue. How is it possible to have perfectly intelligible conversations on a train one week and then understand basically nothing in a children’s movie the next? This experience was not the prettiest detour on my path to the bilingual life, but it was an interesting learning opportunity, and gave me a little more fuel to motivate me so that the next time I watch a movie in Chinese, maybe I’ll understand five percent more 🙂
College is hard, learning a new language is hard, not knowing what you’re going to do with your future is hard – this stage of life is represented by bitter tea, the first of three teas representing the three stages of life that we drank on a class trip to Dali. I think I’m ready for the sweet and hearty tea of middle age, but my language skills aren’t.
Sometimes, I am just so slow to understand a sentence, as if my brain is putting up a fight to process every word’s meaning. No one told me that I would feel dumb/hopeless/useless at least once a day when immersing myself in a foreign language. School here is hard, being homesick is hard, even buying a cup of boba milk tea is hard. Everything is hard… and that’s the point!
During my first week in Kunming, I called my mom and told her that I’m good, Kunming is fun, but also everything is so hard, and in the most perfectly all-knowingly motherly way, she told me that OF COURSE it’s hard. If I could already speak Chinese and effortlessly acclimate to a new culture and already had friends here, why would I even bother coming? What would be the point of this experience if I didn’t need to be taught anything new? You’re right mom. Thanks for letting me enjoy a sip of your tea.
Cover photo caption: Happy to smell the freshly rained-on fields, happy to have an extended weekend after the midterm exam, and happy to have finished the 6-hour bus ride to Dali!