This will come as a shock to people who know me, but I’m learning to speak Chinese. I didn’t really mean to - it all started from converstations while playing Go over lunch. Now I’ve been learning words for three weeks and just bought a pile of books, so I suppose I should accept that I’m at least making an effort.
I’m lucky to have a Chinese colleague willing to spend time listening to me mispronounce simple words and forget phrases I knew minutes before. I’m puzzling coworkers who overhear: “Sha” “No.” “Sha” “No. Sha.”“Sha” “No.” “Sha” “No. Sha.” “sha” “Yes!” “Sha” “No!” “Sha” “Nooo!” “Sha.” and so on every day. I’m not good at this type of thing.
I’m comfortable with English (once, long ago, I could actually write, sigh) but at school my lack of foreign language skills was legendary. I now know more Chinese than French, but to be honest that didn’t take more than about four hours. I was a spectacular failure in French classes. Even the worst pupils in my year probably had “At least little Timmy isn’t as bad at French as Peter Birkinshaw” on their reports, right next to the arson problem.
It was only towards the end of my GCSEs that I started to learn how to actually learn: before that I’d either absorbed information almost effortlessly, or watched it flow past me. It took some excellent sixth form teachers and a few library books on Buddhism to help me understand that learning is just a process: you apply effort, tools and techniques, and you learn. It was a bit late by then, but I’ve done OK. I still try to learn new skills: the whole content-to-tech career switch took a lot of O’Reilly books on the metro.
I don’t think I’ll ever speak good Mandarin Chinese, but I’m enjoying the attempt. I can use it as an excuse to watch more Kung Fu DVDs too.