Foreigners who are new to China have any number of things to grapple with - a new and fascinating culture, new friends, a new job, delicious, varied food and perhaps one of the most difficult to learn languages in the world.
For many, learning the language is one of the first priorities when arriving in a new country where English is not the lingua franca.
For me, one of the joys of being able to converse in a foreign language is that you are able to let the ever-smiling baozi man, who serves you a delicious breakfast every morning, know that his buns are, unquestionably, the most delicious you've ever tasted. It's also pleasant to be able to pass the time of day with my ultra-friendly neighbor who would, I feel sure, become a firm drinking buddy if only we could converse fluently.
Now there are any number of possible routes open to foreigners wishing to learn Chinese. These methods are well known, so I won't venture down such well-trodden paths. Suffice to say that any formal learning method you employ is, at some stage, likely to have your eyes glaze over like some long-forgotten algebra lesson.
So, in view of my desire for everyday communication and my wish to immerse myself in daily life, I chose a different method, what I called SBAWFTTGW, or: Sit Back and Wait For Things To Go Wrong.
I know, this may sound hopelessly negative and passive, but hear me out. In my apartment, there are any number of things, which are simply programmed to malfunction at any given moment, not to mention the inevitables, such as laptop and Internet. I first employed this passive-aggressive method of learning while living in Guangdong's provincial capital Guangzhou.
One morning, when my Internet stopped working, I - through a combination of phrasebook and online translator - pieced together "My Internet is down, can you send a repairman this morning?" in what I hoped was workable Chinese.
Like any grim sitcom, it took a while for the punch line to drop, but, eventually, some 45 minutes later, a repairman rocked up on a 30-year-old motorbike with all manner of equipment miraculously fastened to it.
After another 15 minutes, lo-and-behold, my Internet was back! And I'd picked up some useful vocabulary in the process, which, thanks to the bizarreness of the situation, I would never forget.
Through my communications with my Internet provider, I also discovered that the local China Telecom sales rep learned his (excellent) English simply by listening to the radio and reading books. Clearly, for him, things had gone very right indeed.
The SBAWFTTGW method also works well for communication in restaurants and markets, and you can learn just how similar other Chinese words can be if you get your tones wrong. The method of learning a new word by mispronouncing a known one might be embarrassing initially, but you'll never forget the new word.
Embarrassment is one of the cruelest, yet most effective teachers. Just go into any market and ask for a banana (xiangjiao), and see what kind of response you get. Once the laughter, or baffled silence has cleared, the puzzled stallholder might work out that you don't actually want rubber (xiangjiao). You really want it's far more edible, similar-sounding companion.
Truly, the language can be a social banana skin, and this is a really a very mild example. But, bit-by-bit, you learn, and gain the kind of invaluable experience, which the classroom, or language exchange cannot provide.
Gradually, as more things went wrong, I used the old piece-it-together trick just as before to solve my problems in Chinese, DIY-style. Now, I won't pretend that my Chinese is perfect, far from it! But, in a rough-and ready, "street" kind of way, it gets me by, even if it won't allow me to discuss the poetry of Du Fu with eminent scholars of Chinese literature.
So, my advice is: sit back and wait for things to go wrong, which they surely will - and remember: Life's just one long vocabulary lesson.
(China Daily by Simon Stafford May 4, 2011)