It’s been seven years since I took my first Mandarin Chinese class at the Atlanta International Language Institute. I should be proud that I’m still studying Chinese, but I’m not. It pains me to think how much I should know right now. I should be able to breeze through a simple newspaper article or take to Weibo (A Chinese microblogging site) with short quips in Chinese. But I can’t.
Last year I decided to revive my studies after completing the Johnson O’Connor aptitude tests. My scores on the Silograms (a test for language acquisition) and Tonal Memory were on the high end. It explained why my initial foray learning Chinese (a tonal language) came easily. Too easily. The ease of my initial study of Chinese created a natural high. I would repeat a word, phrase, or series of tones and remember much of it hours and days later.
When the honeymoon phase was over I got stuck. The talent part, the initial interest, was easy. It was like diving. An initial push and the sensation of flying. Exhilaration. Once the high wore off I had to start swimming, building routines and finding ways to incorporate language learning into everyday life. I had to do the work. I needed to hone my language skills which required effort.
I am not averse to effort. It’s the context in which the effort must be expended. I like to be in the thick of it. Once in the fray I don’t want out until I’ve mastered the chaos. I’m confident if I found myself in China for a year I would have a good grasp of Mandarin. Not fluent, but humming along nicely. Unfortunately I’m not in China which means I must manufacture the motivation to do the work. I discovered this tendency after examining my work history.
In 1999 I quit my sedentary job behind a counter to fix fiberglass bathtubs. With hard work (and a few tears) I was able to make a spider crack in the back wall of a shower disappear. Three years later I quit fiberglass repair and entered the world of technical support. In 2002 my computer knowledge fit in a thimble. Three years later I was proficient with a computer, the software I supported, and basic networking. By 2007 I could build my own computer and set up a network.
The biggest challenge of all was management. When the opportunity presented itself I applied for an open position. I was shocked when chosen. I went from answering customer questions about dental software to leading a team. I failed more times than I can count, but I kept going. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, give up at becoming a great manager. Six years in and I’m holding my own. (I might even be good at it.)
With each job I plunged in, clueless to the pitfalls and challenges ahead. I persevered and came out the other end stronger and more confident.
Chinese is different. I can’t force it. I can’t parachute into the PRC and start communicating with native Mandarin speakers. There is no fray to step into. There’s my house with a beautiful wife and amazing daughter. There’s a movie collection with titles I swear I need to see or watch again. There’s the internet. Worst of all there’s a little voice reminding me how easy it was before.
Over the last few months I’ve met with several native speakers. Several months of private lessons are scheduled. It’s time to work smart and hard. As my first teacher, Mr. Zhao stated years ago, “Keep walking and you will reach your destination. Stop and you will never arrive.”