I didn’t go to class yesterday. Overslept by about 20 minutes, resolved to go to my 10:15 听力 (Aural) lesson even if I missed 口语 (Oral), then a glance out the window persuaded me that it wasn’t worth venturing out into the wind-swept, wintery wilderness for an hour and a half of chit-chat. Our 听力 teacher is awesome, mind you, funny and nice and will tell you about her schooldays reading Marx and Stalin and the difference between 80后 and 90后 (the stereotype for Chinese born in the 80’s and those born in the 90’s), but we haven’t progressed in (the incredibly dull) course material since the start of the month. She assures us that we’re still ahead of the game.
Whatever the case, I stayed in. And surprised myself by spending the better part of the day reviewing vocabulary and copying them into a little notebook I bought for the purpose. (Unfortunately, because I spent particularly few RMB on the notebook, a good part of the time was spent taping pages together as they fell out like my hair has been since I got to China.)
As I huddled in my heated room writing down characters with their respective pinyin and definition, the tedium of the task was tempered by a feeling of gradual liberation–one that I attribute to the power of language learning. Forging links between a taken-for-granted English word and its Chinese equivalent (aha!), or between a character’s pinyin and its Cantonese pronunciation (ohhhhh), I felt as if I were making discoveries, finding never-before-seen pieces of an infinite puzzle, taking small but sure steps towards a parallel language world that has only ever been populated by other people. The possibility of possibilities made me optimistic. In my mind I caught a glimpse of the day, albeit a considerable ways into the future, when I could proudly count myself a member of the Chinese language world.
It is a little dramatic, I’ll admit, but language learning is a dramatic process with deep social, psychological, and emotional implications. A second language, particularly for adults, is not merely “acquired”, as the somewhat misleading term second language acquisition might imply. Reflecting on the Chinese immigrants I spoke to for my senior thesis on their English-language learning experiences in the States, I’ve come to appreciate their efforts and sympathize with their struggles a little more since coming here. The language barrier is daunting and not easily defeated, and without the luxury (that I have) of being able to devote oneself full-time to one’s studies, making even a dent in the wall must feel like an impossible task.
Obviously, growing one’s vocabulary is meaningless if not put to use, and the fact that I did not go outside at all yesterday makes my revelation a little ironic. But in a world where knowledge is power, if my efforts mean that I can read one more street on my Shanghai map, or understand a little more of the propaganda on CCTV, I consider it progress made.