It’s one thing to study and learn a language, but it’s entirely another when you finally get to use it. While it’s fun to earn points on Memrise or Duolingo, slip Disc 16 of your Pimsleur Mandarin lessons into your CD Player, or recognize a symbol or two of Chinese in a magazine article, it’s far more rewarding to begin to hold a conversation (or make the effort to do so) with a native speaker.
On my recent adventures, I had a few opportunities to use Mandarin and while some were more rewarding than others, finally using the language for the first time was a wonderful experience even if I didn’t always get the response I had hoped for. I only wish I read this article or this article before I went about trying to create a natural language exchange without much success.
On the plane from Venice to Paris, a group of girls my age sat in the row in front of M and I with one of them in the third seat next to me. I had caught enough of the conversation to know that they were speaking Mandarin, but I initally didn’t feel comfortable starting a conversation with the stranger next to me. If it didn’t go well, I’d be stuck next to them for the duration of the flight.
As the food cart began to make its way down the aisle towards us, I finally found my opportunity. I turned to the girl to my left and asked, “Will you be having lunch?” in Mandarin.
She nodded her head, then realizing the language I had used, asked me in English, “You speak Chinese?”
I was a bit surprised. Up until this point, M and I had only conversed in French so why did she respond to me in English? I tried again in Chinese. “A little bit but not very well.” She nodded again and then returned to her magazine, ending my attempt to converse with her. Perhaps I should have lied and said that I spoke better…
My next opportunity was a little more successful. Our flight to Malaysia was on the Taiwanese carrier Eva Airlines, and so, the crew spoke both Mandarin and English. Each time they took our drink and food orders, I responded in Mandarin rather than English. The crew still insisted on speaking to me in English, but they understood what I said, so I’ll take that as a
win. In fact, in Taiwan I had the same experience. On our return trip I visited the bookstore and asked for a book. “Excuse me, do you have the first book?” I asked while pointing to the third book in the Game of Throne Series in Mandarin. He disappeared into the back then return telling me, in English, that it was “Sold Out.” When I told him that I would buy the third one then, he looked at me and said, “Chinese, it’s okay?”
I must have a horribly telling accent.
As we waiting in the airport in Taiwan, I made a game out of guessing the announced flight numbers before they said them in English (each message was in Mandarin followed by English). M merely rolled his eyes as I excitedly uttered each number aloud before the message was repeated in English.
At the WYJF’s opening dinner I sat next to one of the event sponsors who I learned spoke several languages (one of which was Mandarin). I told him that I was learning Mandarin, but could only speak a little and not very well. Upon hearing me use the language, he suddenly began to speak rapidly in Mandarin but all I caught was that he told me the ability to speak a little bit is actually a lot. His reaction was the complete opposite of what my previous experiences had been and I felt somewhat overwhelmed. I never quite got the opportunity to continue or make any further efforts because the conversation returned to English as other attendees joined the table.
All in all, my experience has taught me that I still have a lot of work to do.
If you’ve attempted to make language exchanges, what was your experience? Did you have as difficult of a time as I did?
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.