Language tip a cuticle above the rest

By Christine Lakowski (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-04 10:19
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Language tip a cuticle above the rest

Learning Chinese is daunting. This topic, hardly news, is a crutch for many a columnist. I won't burden you with another Chinese kvetch session to the immense pile.

My goal is to share one trick I've learned during my two years in China that has really helped me grasp the language. It's also given me great-looking nails, more glamorous-looking hair and gotten me into shape to boot.

I might have lost you (especially you gentlemen) with that, but hold on.

Language tip a cuticle above the rest

As foreigners flood into China looking for opportunities, it's easier to fall into a routine in which Chinese becomes a two- or three-word exchange with taxi drivers.

Whatever language you arrive with, whether it be English, Finnish or Georgian, you're bound to find others who can speak it, too, meaning you need break out of it.

I speak English 90 percent of the time, but I make a conscious effort to inject myself into situations where I'm forced to have conversations that go beyond the "Yes, I'm American. I've lived here two years. I like China very much. I have a boyfriend" banter.

It's not easy, but it works better if I can use the language to justify some pampering.

I stumbled onto this idea when I lived in Guangzhou. There was a neat little yoga studio in a park behind my apartment. All the classes were in Chinese.

For someone completely new to yoga, it was unnerving to be the only foreigner in the class making egregious errors with the downward dog move.

I realized pretty quickly that not only was it helping me get into shape, but also it had the added bonus of improving my Chinese.

Parts of the body? Got them down. Inhale, exhale, relax? Those words became second nature.

Taking mental notes of words and phrases of words I'd hear repeatedly and asking about them later helped.

Also, being given instruction in Chinese followed by a physical action really got my synapses to make connections that were germane to everyday life.

It was a vast improvement over the impractical or outdated vocabulary that peppers most Chinese language textbooks.

Then I tried to experiment with manicures and pedicures, and why not? The salon worker is someone who more likely than not speaks no English. She is going to be working on your nails for the better part of an hour and wants to talk with you.

I started making appointments every week or so with the same woman,

Lilya. I did this to avoid repeating the same banal introductions and it was really effective. Tack on hair stylings for a fraction of what I'd pay in the US and I was killing two birds with one stone.

Now, perhaps it's not entirely accurate to encourage folks to fire their tutor in favor of a foot masseuse.

It does help to have someone with a thorough understanding of your own language to answer some of those trickier grammatical and idiomatic questions.

But then it's also necessary to put yourself out there and figure it out, develop an ear for different regional accents and so on.

It works for me.