Saturday, April 18, 2009

Thai, Chinese and learning a foreign language

My Swedish friend photographer Susanna in Bangkok wrote this week on her blog "Bangkok Life" about how she has gone about learning Thai. She went to a language school where the students weren't allowed to speak! (Paddy's comment: "very Zen"). The students were expected to learn the language by listening like small children on their parent's laps, imitating the sounds and eventually getting it right. Sounds like a kind of "Suzuki" method of language comprehension to me. But it seemed to work fine for Susanna and others.

Susanna's teachers were very clever at acting out everything they were saying in Thai and this made me think about my own Chinese lessons at "Chinese Corner" here in Chengdu. Chinese people in general are not very good at using their bodies and physical gestures to convey thoughts. Their body language is virtually silent which can often be frustrating when I myself am trying to convey something in broken Chinese and use gestures and pictures in the air - most people just don't get it. Their trust in the verbal language is so great it can sometimes be very frustrating. I have to repeat myself over and over, more and more exaggerating my movements each time, in the end resorting to drawings etc until my need is conveyed. Even pictures and especially maps and "directional, spatial, abstract thinking" seems to be something that Chinese lack general training in. When shown a city map it is often held upside down, a picture is scrutinized in laborious detail, as if hunting for a hidden clue unlocking its secrets. I have found though that as more and more Chinese travel outside of their own "comfort zone" of regional and cultural  familiarity, their ability to communicate and think abstractly develops. Perfectly understandable.  

On the other hand they are usually extremely forgiving of a foreigner's idiotic attempts at speaking the language. They listen very patiently, offer umpteen loud suggestions as to what on earth you are trying to say, the volume of their suggestion increasing with each sentence, and generally end the entire inane conversation with a positive compliment of  "My, you really speak fantastic Chinese!" Even when what has just come out of your mouth were more like the insane incoherent ramblings of someone with their tongue cut off having an epileptic fit with their arms flying about in the air like a windmill that has lost a few screws and threatens to decapitate the audience........(Something like what Paddy calls an "illogical fit".)

I have two teachers at Chinese Corner, one is better at acting out the language than the other and it is also reflected in her personality. I enjoy these lessons immensely and because the classes are almost all "one on one" we are encouraged to speak as much as possible, of course only in Chinese and never in our native tongue. One day a week I share a lesson in "conversational Chinese" with a Spanish friend B. from Barcelona. We get to talk about whatever we want and being two ladies with a latin background we never lack for anything to babble on about. Usually we are screaming with laughter, the teacher too who loves to teach us lot's of slang and colloquial sayings. Last Friday she commented that I was good at "tooting my own horn" and taught me two ways to say this in Chinese:

I.e. "pay myself a complement", (svenska: en riktig skrytmoster med andra ord).

B. from Barcelona commented that in Mexico where she grew up they say it like this:

"My, aren't you putting a lot of sour cream in your tacos!"


  1. Hallåå and Good Luck - Choc dee mak, mak....
    I have a feeling that Chinese language is more difficult than Thai or mybe in the same range.

    Sometimes very frustrating with Thai just because One word can mean many different things depence how you pronunce it.

    And I asked myself several times WHY invent a language like that....WHY?

    Hope you succeed and don't give up beacause a new world is waiting for you. And I am sure you will have more respect and can probably get a better price in the market, hihihi!

    Take care and I would love to hear you speaking Chinese!


  2. Hej Susanna (förresten fick din bok äntligen, superfin! Jag läser den från pärm till pärm, himla fina goa bilder!):
    Chinese and Thai: I had a Swedish friend who started studying Thai in Lund but thought it was incredibly difficult (those DAMN tones) and switched to standard Chinese which "only" has four tones. Cantonese has five, how many does Thai have? At least you have letters and not thousands and thousands of characters that just will not stick in my teflon brain. I have also often asked myself how a "tonal" language developes, languages of course develop on their own and can not be pointed in one direction from the beginning. I have been trying to learn Chinese for over 20 years, now I feel that this is my last chance to get anywhere. I'm trying hard but have so many distractions! When we meet you speak Thai and I'll speak Chinese hǎo bù hǎo, 好不好 ok!?

  3. Gosh - aren't we going to chat lika our damn tones - we have five....and that's enough for sure.

    Oh, Du har fått boken...vad roligt tack för allt beröm - men man kan alltid göra bättre så tänker jag ofta men det får bli del 2 senare.

    Tappade min lilla Leica i backen häromdagen. Jag skulle luta mig mot ett aluminium räcke och plåta. Men hade glömt att dels sätta fast snöret runt handleden och sedan att aluminium var fasansfullt varmt.....shooooot vad hemskt. Gör inte det någongång Ingrid.....för det gjorde mycket ont.

    Skall beställa din bok i sommar "På Kinesiskt vis" ....basta.

    Lycka till med plugget/S