Making Immersion Happen...

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Despite my startling first experience with Chinese immersion, I've actually found that in many cases, it's easy to get around Beijing with only a bit of pocket-guide Chinese and a lot of gesturing. I actually want to advise against this solution, however, for a few reasons:

  1. Whipping out the pocket-Chinese book is an instant beacon screaming "I'm a tourist who is dying to part with his money! Please overcharge me for things!"

  2. Relying on gesture and quick vocabulary results in a lazy mindset about language learning. It rarely results in meaningful exchanges, and you're pretty unmotivated to remember the words you keep looking up.

  3. Ordering from the picture menu gets old fast. Remember those days pointing to the chicken nuggets on the kids menu? Yeah, just like that.

Instead, it's important to put yourself out on there on the ragged edge of your language abilities. A little panic and embarrassment go a long way toward long-term memory encoding. Learning is certainly modulated by motivation, and nothing is more motivating than trying to describe what exactly butter is to an unimpressed grocer...

One of my favorite locations to engage in a little high-intensity immersion is the Hongqiao Market (a.k.a. Pearl Market). At the Hongqiao Market, prices are set by bartering, so communication is inherent to the process. Most of the time you could get by with English or even just franticly typing numbers into a calculator, but here's a "secret": there are two price brackets, one for Chinese and one for foreigners. Speaking Chinese will get you a little closer to that Chinese-only price, and if that's not motivation enough, you probably won't enjoy Hongqiao Market anyway.

If you're planning to visit China, and if you're as hopelessly optimistic about your language skills as I am, you learned the numbers and several money words (especially classifiers!) before arriving. But my first few price-duels at Hongqiao Market taught me the difference between reading and listening comprehension. Speech segmentation turns out to be quite difficult, and as a perceptual process it will improve only with repeated, brutal practice. So forget about understanding what they're saying to you. Just take in the speech stream, try to listen carefully, and get some visual input by watching the calculator as the vendors openly insult your financial competence. OK, having fun yet? With an attitude of adventure and genuine interest, you will. I certainly have. Just don't spend too much money quite yet.

When you can start parsing the verbal assaults into quantities of money, you are well on your way to becoming a real Pearl Market barterer. Congratulations, you've matched the linguistic achievements of a three-year-old in at least one domain. But this is where the fun begins. Remember, language learning is about putting yourself out there on the ragged edge and seeing what happens. This assertive attitude will also win you a few points with the merchants because it pushes you a little closer to the Chinese side of that price spectrum. You might talk about the qualities of the product (too small, very blue, more cheap). Or you could go straight for the jugular and say: "Wo shi Zhongguo ren!" and demand the Chinese price. I am warning you from experience, this approach may get you smacked, but it also might inspire a chuckle and really challenging (but rewarding) language exchange.

Whatever happens, and however much you overpay for those genuine pleather shoes, you'll have gained valuable experience. Language learning by immersion isn't easy, and often it isn't particularly fun, but it's always exciting and interesting. Put yourself out there, embarrass yourself, play the fool. You will never see these merchants again, and next time you'll get a better discount. Next time.

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Learning by immersion is tricky. I find it hard to continually subject myself to embarrassment, but doing so has helped me learn a lot. Your post reminded me of one of my own experiences in Granada.

Numbers have been one of the many things that are pretty tricky for me in Spanish. I had never learned to count past 10 before coming here, and to my untrained ear many of the larger numbers sound the same. Not to mention they often come up in this “verbal assault” situation, which can catch you off your guard. So the first time I successfully understood a string of numbers while paying the bill (something I have, in fact, witnessed a three-year old do here), I felt very proud.

I was out for tapas at this place called Shambala (all future PIRE-Granada scholars should go here). When we were finished, I asked for the bill, “la cuenta” with my typical expectation of only being able to understand roughly how much the bill was. However, when the waitress told me the price--- it was something like “viente cuatro con quince” (24.15)---I had this sudden realization: “hey, I understood that!” Not wanting to miss an opportunity to demonstrate my understanding, I pulled out exact change (something I never do, as exemplified by my large coin collection in both Euros and Dollars). I think the waitress knew this was a big achievement for me, because she smiled and said “muy bien!”

My recent story of humiliation in China: trying to go for a swim:

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This page contains a single entry by Benjamin Zinszer published on June 11, 2011 11:09 AM.

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