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Why learning Chinese is easier in Year of the Ox
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Britney Spears wants to stop biting her nails, Cameron Diaz wants to stop smoking and start wearing a bra, and I want to speak Chinese. We all have different New Year's resolutions and maybe in 2009 there's a few expats who will share my wish.

If any expat is planning to stay around for a while, then they must seriously consider having a go at learning the local lingo. But it's a 2-3-year commitment, and if you don't plan to hang around, a 3-month burst of enthusiasm isn't enough.

A worker displays an ox-shaped lantern inside a temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Jan. 2, 2009. The lantern is displayed here as a kind of decoration to greet the Chinese lunar New Year, or the Year of Ox, which will start from Jan. 26 this year. (Xinhua/Chong Voon Chung)

A worker displays an ox-shaped lantern inside a temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, January 2, 2009. [Chong Voon Chung/Xinhua] 

At the start, the Chinese language beginner spends most of the time in the dark and this is very frustrating. A teacher told me it took about 800 hours of concentrated listening for the brain to become familiar with the sound of the Chinese language, with the intonations and tones. This effort did not include all the memorizing and speaking work. All up, it takes about 2,000 hours of hard study that's 15 hours a week for 3 years.

Learning putonghua is a long winding road, and I've trudged down this bumpy path a fair bit over the past 18 months, but I reckon 2009, the Year of the Ox, is the year the miracle will happen. This year is the perfect time to learn the world's most difficult language because the Ox is the sign of prosperity through fortitude and hard work.

I've been living in China for two and half years and unlike many of my Mandarin-mad mates, who hit the books and flashed the flash cards immediately on arrival, I was a late starter. For the first year, I was just happy to be here.

In fact, I read an interesting report that claimed a man or a woman living in a new country could enjoy a 25 percent boost to their wellbeing and outlook in life. According to the theory, and depending on the individual, a new expat's senses receive additional stimulation because everything is new. The buzz heightened "wellbeing" levels, which could stay forever. Our work colleagues, the neighbors, the local shops, the food, the restaurants, the bars, the clubs and everything else were all brand new and these new sights and sounds could energize an open-minded visitor. A kid visiting a park experienced the same sensation.

The research proved true for me because at first, I was happy every day. I woke each morning, looked out the window onto the streets of Beijing, and thought: "How cool, I'm living in China."

I felt this enthusiasm for about five months until the arrival of winter, which chilled my outlook. However, although my mood and enthusiasm for China dropped a fraction, I was still feeling more positive about life than when I first arrived.

But about one year into my China mission, I really hit the skids. My mood nose-dived significantly because I felt totally isolated from 99.9 percent of the people living here.

It happened when I was holidaying in that fantastic historic town of Lijiang, in Yunnan province. It is a marvelous place, but I couldn't speak to anyone, and they couldn't speak to me. My 100 words were not enough.

I actually quit my China Daily job and told my bosses I needed to go to language school full-time. A compromise was made, and they gave me time off work to study. For the past 18 months I have averaged one-on-one study, 12 hours a week and I still can't speak very well. But I know more than 2,500 words and could go back to Lijiang and have a much better time. I'm half way down the road.

My listening is much better than my speaking, but as soon as people start speaking quickly (i.e. normal), I'm lost. Chinese television is still mystery. I normally experience a 5-second delay before I comprehend a little bit of what's being said. But I still watch TV and still focus. I need those 800 hours, and I've racked up about 500.

But a learner does have some wonderful moments of clarity on the path, and this happens to me every few months. The four tones actually start sounding different, new words learnt weeks before leap to mind, and even some of those strange squiggly lines make sense.

If you want to learn Chinese and work a busy job, like many of us expats do, the road will be longer, but this mission is not impossible.

According to Chinese astrology, the Ox works hard, patiently, and methodically, with original intelligence and reflective thought. Behind this tenacious, laboring, and self-sacrificing exterior lies an active mind.  

(China Daily January 6, 2009)

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