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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Me No Speak Chinese

There are millions of people living in Arizona who don't speak English. Many people who do speak English are incredulous: "How can they live in the US & not speak the language?"

As a language teacher I know that learning any language is difficult, even if you really want to learn it. But in the last several months, I have also experienced first-hand how hard it is to learn a language, even if you live in a country where it is spoken.

Not speaking the local language is pretty isolating. While I was living in Vietnam, I felt cut off from other people because I couldn't communicate with them, like there was a barbed wire fence separating me from the rich, full life beyond it.

In an effort to break down that barrier, I gave a decent effort to learning Vietnamese. However, after seven months there, I was only able to hold a basic conversation: What's your name? How old are you? Are you married yet? Believe it or not, there just weren't that many opportunities to practice the language.

I soon discovered that body language communicates an amazing amount of information. & most days it's more important just to get your point across than to speak the local language. The lady at the market doesn't want to give you a vocabulary lesson. She just wants to sell you her mangos. So you point, she types some numbers into her calculator, you give her the money, & that's that.

Here in Shanghai, it's also pretty easy to get by without speaking Chinese. Again, body language usually helps with grocery shopping & getting a cup of coffee. I'm doubling my language learning efforts, though, so I can raze the barbed wire fence & get a taste of what real life in China is like.

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