Beware of Long Vacations

Mostly, this column has been about how grueling yet immensely fulfilling it is to study Mandarin. Not this time. Instead, Julie focuses on how taking a break can impact your language learning.

I’ll start with a confession: for the past month or so, that is, ever since I passed the HSK exam, I haven’t even looked at my Mandarin textbooks. I haven’t been back to school and I haven’t done any studies on my own either. Which is, by the way, one of the many reasons why I was never particularly fond of exams; you tend to accelerate the learning before the event and feel therefore entitled to a well-deserved break afterwards. And the steady pace of knowledge acquisition is irreversibly gone, completely drowned in a swamp of righteous indolence.

Well, everybody deserves a vacation. And summer is arguably the right time for it, something most schools seem to agree upon. As the sweltering heat slowly melts your brains and the sun makes you squint, studying becomes a slightly less attractive option than, say, listening to soft music while sipping an ice-cold brew. Let’s face it, even if you were to flee the sweaty outdoors and hide in a cool air-conditioned locale somewhere, the reigning atmosphere is still that of sultry languor. It’s just that time of the year.

That firm resolution of mine to finally figure out how to set up a TaoBao account without the help of a Chinese friend suddenly seems like a distant and unrealistic vision.

One might argue that living in Dongguan at least means I’d be immersed in a Chinese language environment, right? Well, not exactly. It’s more like having the option to dip your toes into it from time to time. Sitting in a DiDi during rush hour (which is basically any hour of the day in this fair city) does provide ample opportunities to practice my speaking and listening comprehension skills with the driver and even discern the occasional swear word that is not part of the official HSK thesaurus. Traffic jams are also highly accommodating when it comes to looking up and eventually deciphering some of the patriotic banners or advertisements along the sides of the road. Yet even the longest city commute comes to an end at some point and so I’m back to my comfortable bubble of English-speaking friends, Netflix and the latest pile of novels, regrettably, none of which are written in Mandarin.

And so, I can sense my language skills deteriorating at a breakneck speed. How unfair! It takes ages and tons of effort to memorize those complicated characters and it feels like milliseconds for them to desert my poor brain. The meaning of the good old philosophical chengyu (those classical Chinese four-character idiomatic phrases) that was so obvious only yesterday, is once again a complete mystery. On the rare occasion when I actually need to use my Mandarin, I have to struggle to find even the simplest of words. Google translate is once again becoming the default option for reading the official-looking text messages that the likes of China Mobile keep sending to me. That firm resolution of mine to finally figure out how to set up a TaoBao account without the help of a Chinese friend suddenly seems like a distant and unrealistic vision. And would I ever dare to approach a highly recommended Chinese movie without English subtitles?

“To stand still is to fall behind.” I wonder if Mark Twain might have had learning Mandarin in mind when he wrote his famous quote. It certainly rings true after my unnecessarily lengthy study break. Once again, I’m being reminded of the importance of that humble and somewhat boring virtue, perseverance, and overwhelmed by admiration for the Chinese people whom I consider masters of this particular virtue. And I make a pledge to myself to keep moving forward, if only to avoid hopelessly falling behind.