Lingua franca

This past week’s lapse in updates was partly because I wanted to take a break to think about more things to write, and in part due to the fact that today was the birthday of NCKU. In honor of that, there were no classes held today, and instead I joined the Chinese Language Center for the shortest parade ever (we walked halfway around a small track) and when we passed by the stands we said “Happy birthday NCKU in Chinese”. Even though it was hot, it was kind of disappointing to for a parade to be so completely half-hearted. Having made the effort to gather people and bother with the activity, the parading should probably be at least the same amount of time that it took for everyone to line up and organize. In this case, that would probably be 20-30 minutes…)


After the “parade”, I hung around the campus and saw some of the other activities that were being held. Mostly a group of my classmates and I stayed near where student groups set up stands and were hawking food as well as offering carnival-type games. So yes, like a Taiwanese night market, just held during the day. And like proper night market style, we walked around the area multiple times, buying one or two items at a time and sharing them with everyone in the group. It’s not a particularly hygienic way to eat, but it’s a better way to satisfy the fact that everything looks/smells/tastes delicious. We played some of the ridiculous games, and then sat and chatted about nothing for a while.


Or, like what happens often with students at the Chinese Language Center, we taught each other fragments of different languages. This is something that I’m really enjoying about studying Chinese this time around that I did not experience with any of the other times that I have studied Chinese in a classroom. Most of my classmates aren’t native English speakers, and for that matter, most of them aren’t even from anywhere near North America. Mostly, they are Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese but there is also a variety of other nationalities mixed in. I doubt I would have thought of this as an advantage before coming here, so I want to elaborate a bit on why I’ve come to view it as such.


The first time I really made rapid progress with studying Chinese was when I studied abroad in Beijing. The main reason for the leaps and bounds that I made during those short 8 weeks was most likely the language pledge that we signed and adhered to (for the first half anyway). Although the immersion situation was also helpful, the language pledge guaranteed that I had to use the language in a practical way, every day, all the time. Up until that point, I hadn’t really ever learned Chinese separate from English, but suddenly class was taught entirely in Chinese, and there began to be some separation between the two languages: Instead of being able to choose the most clear and easy way of conveying a concept which would always mean using English, this crutch was entirely removed and there was no option to bail from attempting to make myself understood using Chinese. Unfortunately, that condition lifted when I returned to the US and remained that way until I moved to Taiwan. Still, I imagined that when I returned to taking classes, English would still be the basis of learning Chinese, and it’d become the usual stepping stone into the other language.


After arriving at the CLC at NCKU, I realized that this would not be he case: having classmates who aren’t fluent in English eliminates this as an option. Especially at the level that I’m at now, it is better that everything is taught in Chinese, anyway. And at NCKU, I only turn to my classmates and speak Chinese, no matter what we’re doing because we don’t share any other language by which we can really communicate – no language pledge involved! The temptation to just skip to fast and easy communication using English is eliminated. Of course, I often do hear English as a lingua franca between students when they’re out of class – especially for the lower level students, but in my classes there are no other native English speakers, so it just generally doesn’t happen.


Another bonus to taking classes with students who aren’t native English speakers is that I find myself less likely to adopt their mistakes. This is, again, something that I never would have thought a bonus until it happened. The pronunciation mistakes that I hear Japanese students are simply not errors that I find myself making with any systematic regularity (just for example: Japanese students seem to have problems with the initial sounds in Mandarin, and also mispronounce “i’ and “e” in ways that I am pretty sure I have never done). Conversely, despite the amount of hours that I have spent trying eliminate my American accent, if I hang around other American speakers of Chinese, I hear my accent slide towards theirs disappointingly quickly. Mistakes with things like grammar and word usage are harder to detect, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a similar kind of buffer.


And of course, the side benefit is that perhaps I’ll pick up a few random phrases in Vietnamese, Japanese, Cantonese, Thai, Korean, etc… before I leave.


This is not at all where I was really intending to go when I sat down to write this, but I’ll post it anyway, and hopefully get around to telling the other pieces that I want to talk about later – such as why I was busy last week.

Final note on my life: it’s been really humid and warm again in Tainan recently which has led to an epic boom in the mosquito population. Not cool. I may have even stayed up writing this in between I hunting a mosquito in my room.