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
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 z 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 s 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
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.
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 café, 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!