Sunday, May 1, 2011

DING! Fries are done.

I used to have this idea that if I studied Chinese long and hard enough, someday I’d be “fluent”, like Fluency was a prize I could win and maybe pin to my shoulder. Look at my shiny Fluency Medal! I worked for the prescribed X years to learn Chinese and now I qualify as Fluent! It’s Official!

OK, maybe not quite like that, but there was this idea that learning a language (for me, Chinese – but really it goes for any language) had a specific end date or final goal, and once I reached it - DING! Fries are done.

Of course it’s a myth – sure there’s a point when, if you work hard enough, you will reach a level of ability generally recognized as “fluency”, but that doesn’t mean the fries are done. There are also a lot of different ways in which one can define fluency, and a lot of different components of it that people are going to be naturally better at than others (I’m great at sounding local and speaking without turning on an internal translator. I’m fairly good at joking in Chinese and pretty adept at switching between Chinese and English. I have friends who are better at elaborate grammar constructions, others who are strong writers and fast readers, and others who understand Chinese characters more in-depth, and have met others with razor-sharp tones and pronunciation. I have met nobody who excels at all of the above who is not a native speaker, although I am sure such people exist). That would be a good post for the future, methinks.

I do feel that many language classes perpetuate this idea, as well as the idea that Fluency is one well-defined thing and anyone who possesses it will naturally possess all of the same skills and strengths of someone else who also possesses it.

Ever since I quit classes – I’ll go back once this whole Turkey trip is done – and found that my Chinese was improving regardless (not as quickly and certainly not as academically, but I am still picking up phrases, structures, vocabulary, slang and idioms and the ability to communicate ever more quickly and precisely).

Not saying you should quit Chinese class if you’re taking it, though – that doesn’t work for everyone. It just happened to work for me.

I’ve also realized that there is no moment when the fries are done. The microwave of learning will never DING!

This has made it a lot easier to put to rest my earlier plan of going to graduate school for Chinese, and instead deciding to go for Applied Linguistics. Part of my reasoning is that the Chinese I’d likely learn would be of the academic sort that, while worthy and interesting, isn’t right for me and my goals regarding Chinese. I’ve found time and time again that Chinese classes in the USA and Taiwan – and China – are focused on a sort of formal, newscasterly Chinese that doesn’t interest me as much as actual local parlance, and that there is a bias in those institutions toward that type of Chinese – as in, you must speak Chinese like an anchor on TVBS or you are Beneath Us. Why would you want to roll with common street rabble?

Which is bullshit if you ask me – not entirely so, as this type of Chinese (or any language) and the way it is learned clearly suits some people, and it is a worthy pursuit if that’s what you’re into…and that’s fine. I just feel differently. It’s bullshit, basically, if someone decides that this is the only “proper” form of learning, or that it is the “best” way, as opposed to what it is: one form out of many.

The most linguistically interesting thing about language to me is how it varies in everyday use, not how it sounds in a language lab. I’m more interested in exploring that as a speaker, neighbor and friend than as a researcher.

My goal is to be a scholar when it comes to pedagogy, educational methods, public speaking and Linguistics. My goal is to teach language as a tool and a living, changing entity, not some esoteric Idea that must be related through academia. To promote it as a facilitator and friend-maker, and to promote learning it in such a way that you might conceivably…well, if not sound local, at least better relate to local culture and people.

My goal for Chinese is to basically age gracefully into an obasan who might not be fine academic writer, but who can argue and gossip and tell stories with the best of ‘em.
As such, I’ve come to be much more accepting of a life goal for Chinese that involves making local friends, talking to people as much as possible, taking classes on an ad hoc basis, self-studying, and attending talks and courses in Chinese purely to both keep up and improve my abilities…and I’ll never be done. Continuing to learn and speak it purely for the enjoyment of doing so, and not for an academic qualification. I’m now OK with focusing more on fitting in locally than reading the classics of Chinese literature in Chinese - which is a wonderful and noble pursuit, but not my thing. Not that I don’t read such things, but that learning the highfalutin Chinese to do so takes precious time away from practice street-level fluency and everyday eloquence, and I want those things more.

It’s quite freeing really, to decide that learning a language will be a lifelong, purely-for-love pursuit, that it will never end, and that I don’t need a professor to tell me when I am Fluent.

So put those fries back in and crank that baby up!

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