For almost 7 years, I’ve studied Mandarin Chinese with the consistency and attention span of Dug the Dog from the Pixar movie Up. In that time, I have made tremendous progress in fluently reciting phrases like:
我不知道。 – I don’t know.
那是什么意思？ – What does that mean?
请再说一遍。 – Please say it again.
我听不懂。 – I don’t understand
That last one is by far my favorite due to the reactions it provokes in native Chinese speakers. The shock at my initial language skill gives way to understanding and sympathy for my plight. If the Chinese speaker knows any English, “ting bu dong” is the appropriate trigger phrase to get them to use it.
Sometimes my lack of understanding is a single word or short phrase. Other times, it’s a less familiar dialect or maybe even just 太快了。 In the worst case scenario, the conversation might turn to an area where my vocabulary is too limited to keep up.
This Summer (2015) my family will likely travel back to China. Lackadaisical though they may have been, my continued studies have always been directed toward future trips to China. I’ve always said that I want to be Fluent in Mandarin Chinese when I return to China, and even though I might qualify as Fluent in some definitions of the word, I don’t feel Fluent. Fluent to me means:
- Listening Fluency: I am not translating what I hear into English to understand.
- Speaking Fluency: I am not thinking in English and translating. I am thinking in Chinese.
- Reading Fluency: I am not using a dictionary to read email, social media, and basic street signs.
- Writing Fluency: I am not using a dictionary to confirm which characters are correct when writing an email.
I now have 6 months to get from my current level, whatever that may be, to Fluent. I have 6 months to Cross the Fluent Line.