On “Fluency”: My Chinese Language Learning Journey

For years now, a trickle of Chinese has come out of my mouth—occasional happen-stance interactions with strangers in airports, brief exchanges with people interested in trading English for Mandarin; and, of course, the on-again, off-again Skype lesson. Now that trickle has slowed and become an intermittent drop.

It’s frustrating.

Chinese Language and Literature was my college major. I spent years learning it, and yet, sometimes, I feel as though I’ve completely lost touch with it. I no longer know what it means to say: “I’m fluent.”

Twelve years after finishing undergrad, I still find Mandarin comprehensible but difficult to articulate. True fluency feels like something dangled in front of me—something I can’t have but can’t stop reaching for.

And when I meet native speakers, I can’t help but question myself. Are they annoyed with me?  Do I sound funny? Was that the right word to use in this context?

Hovering over us, as real as the air we breathe, is the awkwardness of cultural difference, compounded by the clumsiness of first-time interactions.

Fluency is known, rightly, as the measure of one’s ability to speak a language, so it’s not surprising to come across this concept here in this blog. Yet, fluency is a concept so hard to wrap your brain around, you could earn a PHD in linguistics and still not fully understand it, unless you happen to like thinking in the abstract.

That’s because fluency is one of those things that exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. Fluency depends on context. It depends on who you ask.

The truth is, first time interactions with strangers in a foreign language feel weird for everyone. They’re uncomfortable. Because added to the layer of clumsy verb conjugations, there’s the creeping self-doubt.

For me, this is the beauty of language learning. Operating in a new language forces us to confront our own fears, to learn what causes our hesitation when we try to speak.

We feel the constraint of words, the inadequacy of grammatical structures. We learn how some words never translate.  We work until we feel comfortable enough to talk about the things we want to talk about. Until one day we drop the ball, we take a break, we make some basic mistakes while we talk.

And someone gives us a look like: 大惊小怪 , like we have a horn growing in the middle of our freaking forehead.

We come to a new crossroads. We either take this as a sign to go back and review our language skills or we give up on it entirely. Languages are never easy to maintain. While we can convince ourselves that we should have pursued a different career in some place like the UN, where we could speak a handful of languages everyday, we can also accept the choices we made in life and make do with what we have. With the number of resources we have available (online and app-wise) to immerse ourselves in language, we can choose to turn on the faucet and let that intermittent drop turn into a steady stream.

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