Dear Language, I Guess I’m Just Not That Into You: Notes on Being the Worst Student Ever

I’ve got a cold and I’m cranky. With my hot, cotton-wool stuffed head expanding outward through my eye sockets and nasal cavity, and my sad little lips fever burnt and ever so slightly frowny, I’m coasting on barely 3 hours of restless sleep.

I thought I ought to make that clear before I keep writing. As I was reminded in the comment section of my last post, lamenting my scattered last gasps of creativity, Mr E. Hemingway had encouraged us self-declared creative types to write drunk, edit sober.

This is something somewhat akin to that.


Hey sexy laydeee!


Yesterday, when my cold first raged forth after a tentative few days incubating, I wanted to go to a pharmacy to buy a decongestant so I could stop mouth breathing. I lay in bed with most of a box of tissues jammed into every orifice in my face, ear canals whistling from the pressure, and searched my many dictionaries for the word decongestant in Mandarin. I couldn’t find it.

Several years ago, I had done the same under similar circumstances, except I’d hauled my miserable corpse out of its sickbed and attempted to explain in my phrasebook Mandarin to the staff at the pharmacy up the road what it was that ailed me and what it was I needed: stuffy nose, clogged nose, miming sinus pathways, sneezing to punctuate, snorting a few times to illustrate my lack of nasal breathing. The lady looked at me, wide eyed, and handed me a box of pore strips, the ones used for ripping black heads out of your nose. I left empty-handed, wishing I was still in Turkey, where I was fluent in malaise and medical emergencies.

This time I didn’t even bother with the pharmacy because I just didn’t have the energy to try to find that exact combination of words that would make sense  in Mandarin, a language that is so deceptively simple at first glance (aside from the tones, but more about that later) but which is actually oddly and inflexibly precise a lot of the time.


They always understand what I mean when I talk about vinegar.


An example of this: vinegar.

We like that really dark, strong vinegar that you get at certain Chinese restaurants. When we eat out, we always ask for two little bowls of it, to dip our veggies and whatnot in. Vinegar is 醋 (), and sounds a bit like stomping your foot whilst saying tsu. We’re fluent in vinegar– or at least we thought we were until we tried out a new Hunan place a few weeks ago.

Over the course of two visits, we tried and repeatedly failed with a number of baffled looking wait staff to request a little side dish of dark vinegar. Initially they had brought us a plain, light rice wine vinegar, so I asked them (with character and pinyin open on my phone’s dictionary as illustration, in case my pronunciation was too startling) if they had dark vinegar (baffled look), or maybe black vinegar (even more baffled look), or perhaps strong vinegar (they abruptly left without a word). At some point, we were given a bowl of soy sauce.  The next time we went back, we went through an identical routine, with further descriptors: fragrant vinegar, dumpling vinegar, aromatic vinegar. None worked.

We had failed, apparently, to find that one specific descriptor which would give the waitstaff the clue as to what we wanted.


Literacy would be nice.


A few years ago, I studied Mandarin intensively for a while. A real course. A structured course, 4 hours a day, every day, for weeks and weeks, until my brain exploded! I did well, too! I got something like 95% on my mid term and final speaking exams, and in a controlled environment (read: classroom), I could have long conversations about fruits and vegetables and clothing sizes and the bitter unfairness of high prices in the marketplace. I could give directions clearly in full sentences! I could name key places in a community (the bank! the shop! the market! the school!) and explain where I was going or where I had been and why.

Outside of the classroom, it was a different matter. My full sentences were frequently met with blank looks or a shrugged, dismissive ting bu dong (usually followed up with the cab driving away without me), so I ended up dumbing it down to key words carefully enunciated in the local dialect (mostly glossing over certain consonants and talking from the back of my mouth) and miming.

The only full sentences I regularly use in Mandarin these days are at the train station booking office when I politely declare that I’m going to Destination X on the Nth of Month Y and returning on the Zth. One passenger, 2nd class, here’s my passport, thanks, ta.  I back it all up with a carefully researched sheet of paper, which reads something like this, neatly copied from the railway timetable website:


SH——> HZ 2012/09/17  G7107 10:00-11:05

HZ——> SH 2012/09/18 G7505 18:05-19:10


So yeah, it probably isn’t my precise sentence structure or crisp tones that account for the fact that I’ve successfully bought 2-3 sets of train tickets every month for the past 3.5 years from monolingual ticket agents.

I’m pretty sure I’m tone deaf, which may account for some of my struggles with the language. I struggle to hear any difference between the tones and fail most of the time. I hear words I think I recognize popping up in sentences all the time, but they’re probably a totally different word, with a different tone, because they make no sense.

What I hear in Mandarin is a lot like this version of English. It should make sense but it usually doesn’t.

In the past half year or so, I’ve found myself slowly giving up on properly learning to speak Mandarin, instead focusing more on learning to read the characters. After all, if what emerges from my clumsy laowai maw is so baffling, I might as well have something more controlled to back it up with.

I find the characters more soothing to deal with. I can sit and meditate on them until I’m ready to move on to the next one. No one’s barking at me, expecting a response. No one’s asking why I’m still really crappy at the language after nearly 4 years in Shanghai. No need to feel humiliated yet again.


I just might be tempted.


The thing is, this isn’t new.

I got it in Turkey too, and I had made a huge effort to learn Turkish on my own, in between teaching and trying to make a life for myself there. I just wasn’t very good at it.

After 6 years, I had babbled and self taught myself up to somewhere in the low intermediate level, enough to do everything I needed (clearly and accurately, for the most part), from getting electricity hooked up in a new flat, to giving detailed instructions to a taxi driver who was lost, to following a marketing meeting (listening mostly, but occasionally interjecting).

My Turkish was great for tasks and small talk but failed in long, thoughtful conversations. My listening was a lot better than my speaking, which was great for keeping tabs on what my students were saying. My reading was pretty good because I had spent years carefully scrutinizing everything I saw: signs, posters, headlines, menus, graffiti.  But still, my hesitation to speak much led to years of being told how lazy, ignorant and possibly stupid I was for not being fluent yet.

It all comes down to speaking.

And, frankly, I’m not big on speaking.  But more on that later.

A month or two ago, I was contacted through this blog by some folks who were running a writing contest of sorts. Big prizes- lots of cash, iPads and whatnot. They thought I’d be well qualified to write a fine piece on why language learning is so very, very special and wonderful when you travel. The judges were mostly big name print travel writers, with one exception- the Fluent in 3 Months dude.  I’m loathe to even link to him here because he makes me feel like crap. He’s built an empire on the idea that if you just go out and, like, chat with the locals, you will be fluent in 3 months. And if not, you’re a lazy, imperialist asshole. Or something like that. I didn’t enter because I knew I’d end up writing something like this and he’d probably light my entry on fire.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to learn.


Oh, Burmese, your spirals are so pleasingly complicated!


I’ve spent my entire life living in someone else’s language. Hell, I did my whole K-12 in French (which, thankfully, I can still speak fairly fluently even after 20 years of ignoring it). My early 20s were spent grappling with being submerged in Afrikaans. I can still recite dirty poetry and curse people out, though I doubt I’d be able to hold a conversation anymore. In my late 20s and into my 30s, it was mostly Turkish but with forays into Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese. More recently, I’ve memorized the pleasantries needed for basic functions in Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, Sri Lanka. This past summer, I babbled away happily in French and pidgin Arabic in Morocco for a solid month. I don’t expect others to speak to me in English, though I appreciate it when they can (and when I can’t do it in their language, like in Burma).

If you want someone who can explain how to identify Persian, Arabic or French loan words in Turkish, I’m your gal. If you want someone to do a comparative analysis of pan Turkic root words, yippee, that’s me. I parse Uyghur for fun. I deconstruct ten syllable Turkish word-sentences like a Sunday puzzle. Last night, I worked my way through this convoluted baby: Çalıştırılmaktaydılar (er, those who were being made to work?).

At any given moment, in my head I’m constructing sentences in one of several languages, just because I wonder what I’d do if in that situation in, say, Xinjiang or Bishkek or Cairo. Could I get my lunch? Could I ask where the loo is? Could I tell that creepy guy to fuck off?

I love language. I love talking about language.  I’m a total language nerd.

I just don’t love talking.

Mostly, I don’t love the endless talking at that infantile, chit-chat level required to learn a language fluently. That level of language is what I deal with for a living. Chatting with locals at beginner levels is something I’ve been paid to do for over a decade. I do it all day at work and then frequently again at weekends, when I do 15 minutes interviews with 30 or so more over the course of 2 days. My brain has been trained to analyse and critique that level of language. I’m a harsh judge. I get paid well to be so. I judge myself even more fiercely, because I know I should be better. I know I could try so much harder.

In my down time, all I want is silence. All I want, if not silence, is a low key, intelligent, adult level conversation about something meaningful. I want to have all the vocabulary needed on the tip of my tongue. I want to use ALL the tenses available to me. I want to be linguistically acrobatic. I want to be an intelligent, eloquent adult.


I swear, my brain must be the size of a walnut…


Most of my adult life has been spent sounding like a small, awkward, not-very-bright child. Most of my adult life has been spent with my ears straining to catch what was said, scrambling to assemble a coherent response in a timely fashion. Most of my adult life has been spent like a student in a Charlie Brown classroom, with the teacher bleating incomprehensible syllables at me. Waaah-waaah-waaah.

Back in Turkey, maybe a decade ago, someone told me about their friend who had moved to Greece because, well, he loved everything Greek. He revelled in it. He stayed and enthusiastically learned the language until he could understand what everyone was saying, without any effort. It was then that he had to leave, because the din of comprehensible daily conversation (so banal! so judgmental!) drove him nuts. He had liked Greece when it was, effectively, quiet. He had liked it better when he was in the Charlie Brown classroom of Greece, observing, slightly detached.

I get it. I do.

I like being in countries where I don’t speak the language. I like being on the outside, looking in. I like having an excuse not to have to make chit chat. I’m cool with being able to tune in when curious enough to listen but not fluent enough to catch everything, unfiltered. I like not having to hear women on the metro talking about how old and fat I look (standard comments overheard in both China and Turkey). I like not hearing every cranky comment my students make when they’d rather not be in class. I liked not understanding every anatomically specific suggestion or request made by guys in Egypt, Turkey, Morocco.

I feel horribly, horribly ashamed of myself for feeling this way.


I’m still functionally illiterate at 38.


As a well traveled person, I should be throwing myself into every situation possible to meet the locals! immerse myself in the culture! stop being a linguistic imperialist monoglot!

It’s kind of like the slight feeling of shame when you’re in, say, rural Myanmar and oh, god, all you want is pizza and not more freaking noodles or rice again.

Sometimes, after most of my adult life being spent in other people’s cultures, other people’s languages, I just need time in a room of my own. Metaphorically speaking.

Am I awful?

Also, how do you say decongestant in Mandarin?

ETA: My lovely assistants at work ran out and bought me these before class today (and obsessively kept my coffee mug full of piping hot water, left I become chilled and die during the lesson). Bless.


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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.