“Ni Shuo Shenme?”

Most Americans would agree that Chinese is a pretty difficult language to learn, especially for people who have had little to no exposure to character-based writing systems or tonal nuances in spoken language. A native English speaker, I worked and struggled through L1 Chinese at Yale this past semester — my first introduction to the language — so I came to China knowing the grammatical fundamentals and a few useful words and phrases, and I felt pretty confident that I’d be able to scrape by.

However, I soon realized that speaking Chinese in a structured classroom setting and trying to navigate the streets of Beijing are two completely different ballgames, and that even though I might be able to ask a question in Chinese, I probably won’t understand the answer. Most of the time I speak Chinese to someone here, I’ll have to have one of our three Chinese speakers (Jack, Li, and Cynthia) nearby to translate what the person says back. There have been many occasions when a cashier, store clerk, or taxi driver has said something to me in rapid-fire Chinese and I, having unsuccessfully attempted to discern even a single word or phrase, have been stuck with a blank stare, awkwardly replying, “Ni shuo shenme?” — “What did you say?”

I personally find such a situation pretty frustrating and rather embarrassing. To initiate a conversation in Chinese and fail to follow through in the same language seems a social faux pas — equivalent, perhaps, to inviting oneself to a party — placing one’s linguistic inadequacies in plain view of native speakers.



Yet despite these frequent cringe-worthy moments, I’ve found the people in China to be incredibly encouraging. So far, at least two taxi drivers have complimented me on my Chinese pronunciation, and a clerk at a teashop even asked me where I learned to speak Chinese. It’s times like those that have made me reflect back on my experience with L1 Chinese and realize just how much language knowledge can be imparted in a single semester — a testament to the quality of Yale’s Chinese curriculum.

With the 350 or so characters we learned in L1, I was able to successfully tell the taxi driver at the airport the address of our hotel and, when he wasn’t familiar with that street, that he could instead take me to the Shuangjing subway station right by our hotel. I’ve been able to order food off of menus (mostly during our all-too-frequent visits to the nearby McDonald’s and KFC), ask where to buy bottled water and, probably most importantly, ask people if they speak English.

Furthermore, after just five days in China, I’ve already picked up some useful new vocabulary, such as 安全出口 (anquan chukou/emergency exit), 洗手间 (xishoujian/bathroom), and 商场 (shangchang/market). It’s also helpful to be surrounded by people speaking Chinese: Simply hearing the language spoken has given me a better sense of proper Chinese pronunciation and intonation.

Traveling to Beijing has shown me that learning Chinese will be a long and winding road, and I look to the upcoming semester with excitement over the prospect of taking the next step down that path.

Aaron Berman

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