Before I came to China people told me there was a 6-month language “hump.” That is, it would take 6 months for Chinese to change from a bat shit crazy collection of sounds (or the “ching-chong-ching” phase as John from Sinosplice calls it) to something that is recognizable as a language (even if you can’t understand it.) I found this to be totally true. The first semester we tended to eat in the cafeteria or restaurants where we could point at the food, and got nervous when someone tried to speak Chinese to us. After 6-months (with hardly any language classes) we were able to begin to recognize characters, hear some familiar sounds and could do the most basic of things (like ask for the bathroom).
But I appear to have made it over another hump, which no one told me about. I call it the two-year hump. I guess this hump comes at different times for everyone, but for the first time since I’ve been here, the language just began to click. Before this summer I’ve been learning Chinese (very part-time) for a year and a half. I’d sit in class, follow the teacher, and struggle along far behind the rest of the class. Since I couldn’t attend every class I couldn’t prepare or do things like the homework, and therefore I fell further and further behind. Even during class break, or dinner parties I would just awkwardly sit around as everyone else was talking and have to ask the other english speakers what was going on.
But something happened after this summer. It was sudden, like the turning of the switch, and I didn’t even realize it at first. Right before class started I ran into one of the other foreign students, a Japanese guy who has been here for more than a year. We have always been friendly to each other but we never could really be friends because of my poor understanding of Chinese. Our conversations would usually be short and confusing. But when I ran into him at the end of the summer we had quite a long conversation (in Chinese). At one point he asked me if I had been studying. “No,” I sheepishly replied. (I always plan to but of course never follow through.) “Well, your Chinese has improved,” he said. Oh my god, I think he’s right, I thought. Â We couldn’t have had the conversation 2 months prior, but suddenly, we could.
So what changed? I’m not sure. I think it is the same magic of the 6-month hump; a mix of immersion and studying. Whatever it is, it’s given me more confidence and desire to continue studying. I’m repeating level 2 again (for the 3rd time) and I’m finally getting it. In fact, I’m the Hermione of the class answering all the questions first and doing all the homework. The teacher even asks me to explain some things in English to the other students if they have trouble understanding it. It’s funny because at this point I have been classmates with just about every foreign student (as they keep advancing and I keep staying back) but I’m okay with that.
This week my teacher told me that my writing was getting better and better and that I was finally ready to move onto level 3. I don’t know my teaching schedule for next semester yet, but I’m hoping that it will work out with the Chinese class schedule so I can go to the level 3 classes. I’m a total language idiot, and someone who never, ever thought they could speak to people in a foreign language. I still get nervous (and for some reason I have no ability to hear numbers) but I’ve reached a point, the two-year hump, when now I know anything is possible.