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For years I've been interested in Mandarin. The language is ancient, unique and the characters themselves intricate and beautiful. I've learned by myself, learned from both Chinese friends and Chinese-speaking colleagues at work. I delight in picking up new words and trying to tack on little bits of knowledge where I can. My ears would always perk-up when I hear people speaking Mandarin on the train/underground. (thats the subway for you American folk :)
The big hurdle for me though is speaking, it just wasn't getting any easier for me. My friends and colleagues would often fail to understand me even though they knew what I was likely to say. My vocab was limited and the context of the situation generally narrowed down what I was trying to say to very few possibilities. It wasn't looking promising.
In addition to pestering Chinese friends and colleagues with questions on Mandarin, I would make regular visits to the Lanzhou Noodle Bar in near Leicester Square in London. One for the noodles and two because 90% or more of the patrons where Mandarin speakers. I would sit enjoying my noodles and passively listen to people chatting away at high speed in Mandarin. It was very good for my listening, sometimes I would be able to recognize pieces of what people would say. Other times nothing would seem to make sense to me. What I didn't know at the time was that this was improving my speaking too. By listening to lots of free-flowing natural conversation you absorb the pacing, sounds and correct emphasis almost by osmosis.
Despite eating noodles there over a couple of years, I never struck up conversation with any of the other patrons. In my mind, I didn't really believe anybody would understand me clearly. My friends struggled, so random member of the public? No much hope I thought.
One evening after work, I went over to Leicester square for some noodles. I made my usual order and when the dish arrived, I was inexplicably handed a fork and a spoon. Somewhat perplexed, I motioned to the waitress and as she came over I softly said "筷子吗" without thinking. "chopsticks?" She smiled at me and returned moments later with a set of chopsticks. It clicked in my head, that I was understood just as clearly as if I had spoken in English. Grinning as I stirred my noodles with my newly requested cutlery, I knew I'd be trying this again.
Ever since then, if the opportunity arises and I'm seated next to Mandarin speakers at the noodle bar I'll try to strike up a conversation. Its always basic conversation but it almost always brushes up against some new words or concepts. I almost always walk away learning something new. The language feels more subconscious now when I speak, it doesn't require 100% of my attention when trying shape the words. I'm now thinking about the meaning of the words as they are spoken not which tone they are.
If you are fortunate enough to have a venue in your city frequented by Mandarin speakers, go there regularly. Pull up a chair, order some food and strike up a Mandarin conversation with the friendly stranger next to you. It's the best language school you'll find.
Alan is a Mandarin student and software developer, he builds learning tools such as www.mandarintap.com
What was your experience like speaking Mandarin in public for the first time?
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(image credit tehbus.com)
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