Sep 5, 2011

On hoping to "just pick up" the language

First, you will learn hello and thank you. For weeks, you will marvel at just how far you can get with those two bits of speech, how people smile at you for attempting their native tongue.

You will learn the word for foreigner, hearing it constantly from young children and old ladies as you pass them on the street.

You will learn how to say how are you? You will learn good and, later, tired. It will be months before you learn any other possible answers to that question. It will be half a year before you learn that here, they dont do the how are you? Fine thank you small talk of your home country.

You will buy a textbook, phrasebook, and/or dictionary. You will camp out in coffeeshops on afternoons off, learning materials in hand, hoping someone will approach you and offer some conversation practice.

On the bus, you will eavesdrop on bickering couples, giggling schoolgirls, businessmen on the phone with their wives. You will rake over each sentence in your mind, cheering on the inside when you recognize a word. Those words will be the simplest nouns, house or friend or food.

You will learn to ask how much is this? long before you learn the numbers necessary to explain a price. Most salespeople and waiters have calculators on hand anyway, to punch out the number and show you.

You will learn three different ways of saying okay, but still, okay will be the first word out of your mouth when youre agreeing with someone.

You will learn how to order food, order beer, buy chocolate bars from the corner shop.

You will learn how to say I like _________, and spend days milking this milestone, rattling off lists to cab drivers and market vendors. I like Michael Jackson. I like Santa Claus. I like beer.

You will not learn the days of the week or months of the year. You will not learn to tell time. You will not learn any numbers past 10. You will not be able to translate head, shoulders, knees and toes. Not for months and months.

If youre an ESL teacher, you will learn sit down and be quiet. You will learn textbook, pencil, and eraser. When the students all chirp a word proudly, waving worksheets in the air, you will deduce that it means finished.

Your peers will keenly teach you swear words. Before you can count to ten, you will know how to say f**k, sh*t, f**k off, and at least one nasty line about someones mother.

You will learn I dont want after being approached by aggressive vendors in the market, or children selling roses on the street. You will learn that theres no point trying to say it politely.

You will learn delicious, and say it happily after every meal.

You will learn I love you, and smile every time you hear a voice whisper this to another in an unassuming crowd.


  1. I think you forgot the part about knowing more after a few choice beverages are consumed.

  2. When I was in Sweden once on my second day while out drinking with a Swedish friend I tried to get her to teach me how to count to ten but it was impossible! even if I hadn't been "half in the bag" I don't think I could of gotten it haha
    All very true but I would like to believe that after a few months I would know more than just that little bit... maybe? haha

  3. Hello! I just stumbled on your blog when I saw you were teaching in Asia, which is what I want to do! I plan to teach in China, and I'm intimidated about the prospect of having to learn the language. It's comforting to know that these handful of phrases lasted you so long in your travels! :) I know in SE Asia it's pretty easy to get by with English, is it much harder in China and Korea?

  4. Hi, hobosapient.

    I can't speak for China, but in Korea, you can get pretty far in English, and people have come to expect it from foreign faces I think. My first year in Korea, I thought I could learn through self-study and immersion, and it got me enough Korean to survive, but not enough. I'm taking classes now and wish I'd done it sooner.

    I think it's easy to get by in English in tourist areas (as you saw in SE Asia), but once you get involved in a Chinese workplace and community, you'll probably hit hurtles.

    Once you're settled in China, I'd really recommend a language class. But, during the initial shock of arrival, don't worry too much. Carry a phrasebook around and be patient, and try to learn things like "thank you," "yes," "no" as quickly as you can. Good luck!

  5. Hahaha everything in this blog post is so true. I laughed out loud at the "delicious" part. I think I know how to say that in more languages than I know how to say "thank you" in...

    Maybe I need to rethink my priorities... haha