January 21, 2013 | Mandarin

Caffeination and Language-Learning

In which I return to old habits and am amazed.

Recently I had jury duty. I seem to have jury duty more than anyone I know.

If you have jury duty in Manhattan, you end up on the western edge of Chinatown. I was kind of happy about it, because I was picturing lunchtime excursions where I could practice my Chinese.

Instead I sat in a cavernous jury-duty waiting room for hours, and all I have to show for the experience are the few rather grim pictures you will see in this entry.

Promises, from the Excellent Dumpling House

Promises, from the Excellent Dumpling House

Onto another random topic: the other day in conversation, my husband said the word “Chinese,” and I was surprised. Not that he said “Chinese,” but the way he said it.

“You say ‘Chinese’ with an s sound at the end?” I asked.

I don’t. I say it with a sound.

I promptly went to the dictionary to look it up. Generally my husband’s pronunciation of English words hews closer to the dictionary than my own; my California upbringing wreaked some havoc on certain sounds, especially vowels, it seems. When Brandt pronounces something a particular way that I find odd, it is almost always in the dictionary.

The same cannot be said for some of my pronunciations.

Anyway, sure enough, there it was. You can apparently say it Chi-neeze or Chi-neese, with an sound as in Reese Witherspoon. I have never noticed that in my entire life. The same holds true for the word “Japanese,” by the way.

Random topic 3: the modesty of Chinese (and some other languages) is remarkable when compared to English.

For example, recently I was taught by my Pimsleur audio lessons that if you invite a Chinese person to dinner, he is likely to respond with this: Tai bu hao yi si la. (Please forgive any transliteration faults.) Meaning “It’s too embarrassing.” As though he does not merit the generosity of your offer. So I think then you will have to press him to accept.

7-Eleven Abutting a Chinese Pharmacy

7-Eleven Abutting a Chinese Pharmacy

Also, if you compliment your Chinese host on a meal he has prepared for you, he may say, Me yo shama tomshi chi. (“There was nothing to eat,” and any faults in that transliteration were again mine, since I still don’t know the conventions of pinyin.) My understanding is that this is totally unrelated to the reality of the food volume, so that it would be true even if you were plied with so much food and drink you feel like lying down on the floor and taking a nap.

In English, we are very accepting of invitations and compliments, so I find this cultural difference so strange! And kind of hard work, since you have to overrule the protests, no?

In English I just say thank you!

Random observation 4: I am noticing that tons of people I know know how to say hello in Chinese: Ni-hao. I did not know ni-hao, nor do I recall every having heard ni-hao, until I focused my attention on Chinese.

Right there is a difference I have observed frequently between me and other people: other people often seem to have random little fragments of languages tucked in their heads—languages that they haven’t ever studied, but that they have heard friends or acquaintances speak a few times.

Not me. If I don’t study a language, I am unlikely to pick up nibbles of it. I remain totally oblivious until the Pimsleur lesson is playing in my ears and the grammar book is open in front of me.

I feel uncomfortable with tidbits. If I don’t get why expressions are constructed the way they are—the structure behind the sounds—I am ill at ease. It’s as though there’s nothing to hang those tidbits on; they slide off the hook and right onto the floor, where they get trampled by, well, life and don’t even survive the night.

Random observation 5: a week ago I returned to coffee for the first time since summer. I had been entirely uncaffeinated for more than five months. 

Sandwiches and Latte at Sau Voi Corp.

Sandwiches and Latte at Sau Voi Corp.

I was actually quite happy about that. I never particularly liked the idea of relying on caffeine to feel, um, whole in the morning. The reason I tried it again is that my eyes had continued to feel like crap (I suffer from dry-eye syndrome, as you may know if you have read my whining in previous blog entries), and I thought, well, maybe it will help.

Unfortunately, it did. So I have now officially fallen off the uncaffeinated wagon, right into a pile of espresso grounds.

Yeah, I know, everyone cites studies all day long about how great coffee is supposed to be for you. I never take studies like that too seriously. I’d rather listen to my natural biorhythms if possible, but apparently my biorhythms aren’t interested in my attentions. 

They just want a nice tall latte.

Upon taking up again with my local cafĂ©, what I reluctantly also noticed, besides the improved eye hydration, was that the caffeine seemed to improve my Pimsleur situation. I have been moving so slowly and stupidly with my Chinese lessons, but now I am suddenly getting way more answers right and having to repeat lessons less.

That is causing me to reflect on whether my performance in Portuguese, which I studied right before Chinese, was impaired by my quitting coffee just one month into it. I had expected Portuguese to go so well for me, kind of like Italian (my favorite totally-new-to-me language to date) did, and instead it was unexpectedly hard. Maybe I was suffering the decaffeinated stupids?

Well, my wholesome habit was nice while it lasted. Brain and especially eye function come first, so I will remain addicted for now, I suppose.

Before I sign off, here’s an update on how things stand. I am, I am afraid, only on Pimsleur Chinese Level II, lesson 17. Embarrassing!

Also, I am still focusing on oral communication only. My efforts are sluggish in part because I am devoting many of my days and nights to my now very seriously underway online language-learning directory, which I expect and hope to launch before spring. Most of the e-mails and questions I get through this blog are from readers inquiring what to use to study various languages, so my goal with the directory was to collect analyses of the resources I have tested over the past 3.5 years into a coherent format, with ratings and comments, that people can browse for help in their own efforts.

The directory will consist of reviews of books, audio lessons, places, organizations, websites, and more. Because there are hundreds of entries, editing is no trivial task.

So that I can focus my efforts on getting that done, for at least another five weeks I expect to remain slow with my language studies, and relatively light on the blogging. I hope you will like the outcome!

Comments (7)

acutia • Posted on Mon, January 21, 2013 - 7:25 pm EST

I’ve been reading your blog for a year or so and enjoying your recent Chinese exploits. That said, please forgive me, but I’m finding your transliterations strangely painful. Can I suggest you have a look at Pinyin. I think it’ll be well worth your time.

It’s not a perfect system and has serious flaws. But it’s the one most current Chinese learners use and that itself allows for a degree of consistency when people want to discuss the Chinese language while still using roman scripts.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, January 21, 2013 - 8:04 pm EST

Acutia, first of all, thank you so much for reading the blog. I had to laugh a little at your comment—it was rueful laughing, naturally!

Of course I don’t want to cause anyone pain, so I will try to be more…professional. I have been doing this Chinese segment so far almost entirely without reading, so then when I look things up that I have been repeating through Pimsleur, I run into trouble. I found “bu hao yi si” (after some concerted googling, and without knowing for sure whether it was even right), but then got stuck trying to find the additional two written syllables needed for “it is TOO embarrassing” which point I just started fudging things again. Also, since I often still can’t hear the tones correctly, I am quite bad at marking them. I would estimate I have only a 50% chance of hearing them right.

My efforts have been quite slapdash with Chinese, for the reason cited above, alas.

I suppose I have been a little interested in recording for posterity how American listeners, or at least one American listener, without benefit of writing instruction, HEARS the Chinese sounds unmediated. The little pinyin I have seen actually surprises me sometimes. For example, I don’t want to put “bu”; I want to put “pu.”

Google Translate has not been very helpful to me for this stuff. Any good English-pinyin translation site recommendations would be welcome!

acutia • Posted on Tue, January 22, 2013 - 9:06 am EST

My own Chinese learning has been on hold for a few years now, so my resources are out of date. I can recall no particular English~pinyin converter, although I expect there are many.

I do, though, remember when I was learning pinyin that I really liked the downloadable pinyin-sound chart by chinesepod:

In the same section, they also seem to have a whole series introducing all the vowel and consonant combinations. But that maybe too involved for your interests at the moment.

Good Luck with it.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, January 22, 2013 - 11:50 am EST

Thank you, Acutia! I appreciate it.

Jim Clark • Posted on Sun, January 27, 2013 - 5:31 pm EST

Looking forward to your directory project, especially for podcasts. It seems to me that decent podcasts are a next logical step after Pimsleur. I’ve been using Deutsche Welle’s excellent podcasts.

Jessica Escobar • Posted on Thu, March 12, 2015 - 12:46 pm EST

Hi, Ellen!

I am also learning Mandarin Chinese with Pimsleur, but being a very visual learner, I discovered early on that I remembered words and phrases better and could make better sense of the tones in relation to each other if I aided myself with pinyin at least some of the time, so I did some digging online and I found an excellent and FREE Chinese-English dictionary here: 

You can basically teach yourself pinyin easily by just looking up a few words and starting to see the patterns in how things that sound a certain way are “spelled.” Plus it gives you the Chinese characters, both traditional and simplified. They also have an offline version of the dictionary that you can purchase for just $20. Wikipedia also has a great and comprehensive article on pinyin, if you are interested in approaching the learning of it in a more methodical way, and of course don’t forget Google Translate—for help in ALL of your languages! All free, of course.

For additional vocab and culture lessons, you might also want to look into Mango Languages. Where I live, our public library system has purchased a subscription that it makes available remotely for all people having a library card if you just enter the number. You might want to look into that where you live. Here is the access portal for Washoe County in Nevada, just so you have an idea:

As you advance in your Chinese studies, you might want to listen to radio in Chinese, too. There is an excellent service called AudioNow that allows you to dial in via telephone to listen to radio over the phone from all around the world! Here are some numbers for Chinese language that I have discovered so far and I know it is by no means a comprehensive list:

I also discovered a website with links to free TV channels in various languages from all around the world, in case you are interested. (I figure some of this stuff can probably go in your directory on language learning to help other fellow language learners like you and me!) Here is the link:

Happy learning and thanks for the wonderful blog! It’s refreshing to read the honest thoughts of a fellow linguaphile!


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, March 23, 2015 - 6:42 pm EST

Wow, what a useful comment, Jessica. THANK YOU so much!! I hope to return to Chinese at some point in the future, and I am glad for all the help I can get. :)

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