Steve & Alex – Alex Returns from Beijing

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Alex talks about his trip to China and Steve and Alex discuss learning foreign languages.

Steve: Hi Alex, how are you?

Alex: Doing well, Steve.

Steve: You’re back.

Alex: I am. Glad to be back.

Steve: Good.

That’s always good when you’re glad to be back.

Where were you and how long were you away for?

Alex: I was in China and I was gone for the better part of five weeks.

Steve: Aha. And where were you in China?

Alex: I started out in Beijing, took a quick trip to Nanjing and went back to Beijing for several weeks and pretty much, at the very end of my trip, I decided to make a trip to…um, I just realized I made a mistake there.

Steve: Yeah?

Alex: I actually to Tianjin…

Steve: Right.

Alex: …first.

Steve: First.

Alex: Nanjing was after.

Steve: Oh, okay.

Alex: Nanjing was on my trip to Shanghai.

Steve: Oh, okay.

So you were in Beijing then you went to Tianjin.

Alex: Yes.

Steve: Then from Tianjin you continued down to Shanghai?

Alex: I returned to Beijing…

Steve: Okay.

Alex: …where I spent another two or three weeks.

Steve: Right.

Alex: And then I headed down on the train to Nanjing.

Steve: Oh, okay. So this was not your first trip to China.

Alex: No. This was my second trip to China.

Steve: Aha. When was your last trip?

Alex: My last trip was one year ago.

It was about the same of year, August as well, but it was to a southern city called Wenzhou, which is a little south of Shanghai.

Steve: Right.

Wenzhou is very famous, because all of the peddlers that you find in Europe or people who run little sort of dollar stores in Europe that all over Europe they all come from Wenzhou.

Alex: Really.

Steve: It’s amazing. It’s just astounding.

Alex: Interesting.

Steve: Yes.

They seem to have a tradition there of going overseas and starting a little business.

I think they start off as little street peddlers and then they get into a dollar store type thing and then I think some of them probably do quite well.

Maybe they end up with owning supermarkets, I don’t know — Wenzhou.

And what were you doing in China?

Alex: I went there with basically no plans, which sounded good, but in practice was not quite as fun, I’ll say, because I had a lot of free time, which is nice when you’re busy, but not nice when you have only free time.

So I found myself kind of struggling trying to find things to do, wasting a lot of time and, you know, enjoying one day, but the next day staying at home and wondering what I should do; wracking my brain trying to think of things, trying to come up with brilliant ideas of places to go and people to see, but towards the end of my trip I kind of just ran out of things to do.

Steve: Tell me, did you spend any time working on your Chinese while you were there?

Alex: I did, to a degree, but the place I was staying at didn’t have steady Internet access.

So it was quite limited because before leaving for China most of my Chinese studies were done on the Internet, primarily on LingQ, but also communicating with other people via Facebook and various other websites and so having no access to those resources, I found that it was very limited in what I could do.

Steve: And your Chinese was not good enough that you could, say, jump in a cab and have a conversation with a cab driver or go to the store and ask them to help you find some books or that kind of thing.

Alex: Exactly and it’s one of the things that I really wanted to do.

I tried a couple of times, especially at the beginning of my trip; it was just all too unfamiliar to me.

I found that it became a really stressful environment and situation when I put myself in that situation of trying to rely on my Chinese ability to communicate with someone and communicate effectively.

I noticed that I did improve because I did hear Chinese a lot around me, you know, on the bus and on the subway and with friends that I was with and I did definitely pick up several words and phrases.

I think, honestly, my speaking improved a lot in the process as well, even though I didn’t talk much, but, like I mentioned before, I was just limited in what I could do.

The friend that I was staying with was Korean-Chinese, so we communicated primarily in Korean.

Steve: Let me just interrupt you there.

When you went to Korea for the first time, you already had Korean?

Alex: No.

I would say my Korean then was probably about the same as my Chinese is now, so also very limited.

I think the one benefit that I did have was that I didn’t have as much, say, textbook knowledge of Korean.

Most of my Korean was learned from interaction with friends.

Steve: Here in North America.

Alex: Yes, in Vancouver.

Steve: In Vancouver, yeah; Korean friends.

Alex: Exactly.

Steve: So there you would be, again, mostly listening.

Alex: Right.

I think the biggest difference was that I was more familiar with the kind of conversational structure of Korean and I was used to speaking in Korean, even if it was broken Korean, and I was used to listening to people talk to me.

Steve: Right.

Alex: Whereas the difference with Chinese now is that I can read better in Chinese now than I could read in Korean then, because I’ve spent a lot more time reading in the language, but at the same time I haven’t listened as much.

And it’s not necessarily by choice, but because I had a lot of Korean friends.

I was in a very emersion setting where even when I didn’t want to hear Korean I heard Korean.

Steve: Oh, okay.

Now with the Chinese, though, you said that just being in China and hearing a lot of it that you were on a train coming back from Nanjing and you were in a compartment with some Chinese people and you told me you sort of managed.

Alex: Yeah.

I headed to Shanghai from Nanjing and it was on the way back from Shanghai.

I took the night train.

So I got on the train and they have these compartments for the more expensive seats.

There are four beds in one little room.

I walked in there and there were two people sitting on the bed and so I kind of said hello in Chinese and they said hello.

Then I got my stuff and put it away and then decided rather than having an awkward trip where we didn’t say anything that I may as well take the opportunity to try and say something.

Actually, the first thing I asked them was do you speak English?

They said, very little.

So we communicated primarily in Chinese, but also in English.

The guy who was there could speak English; very limited English, but he knew a lot of difficult words, which he couldn’t really express himself with that clearly.

It was really interesting because in the entire time that I was there I probably spoke Chinese, excluding little sentences at McDonald’s or something saying I would like to order this thing, actually communicating and speaking Chinese, I probably only spoke about maybe 45 minutes of Chinese in five weeks.

On my way back from Shanghai, we spoke for probably about an hour and a half or maybe two hours and I was really surprised at what I could understand and what I could actually say as well.

We were talking about all sorts of different things.

We even talked about the differences in the education system in China and in North America, something that I would never have expected myself to be able to talk about.

I mean of course there were words that I didn’t know and things that I didn’t know how to say, but with the help of my iPod Touch as a dictionary and a little substitution of easier words, rather than more accurate words, I found that I was able to express myself quite clearly and, beyond that, able to understand what was being said to me.

Steve: I mean the great thing there is that you’re in a closed space with two native speakers.

Nobody is in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything, so if they’re willing, which isn’t always the case.

I mean they might.

Alex: Right.

Steve: Like I can imagine myself, I’m in a train compartment and I’ve got my books and my stuff and maybe I want to listen to Russian or whatever and the person across from me wants to practice his English.

I’m not sure that I’d be that interested in spending the next hour and a half.

But, of course, in China you’re more of a rarity, you know, so there would be more interest.

Alex: Right.

Steve: You’re lucky.

I mean you’re very lucky that they were so accommodating.

But it is a great opportunity because, otherwise, if you go to a store they’re in a hurry, you know, they haven’t got time for you.

Alex: Yeah, exactly.

Steve: I mean I always this, you know, it’s great to find someone that you can talk to, but you can’t control that situation.

You can’t control whether they’re patient, not patient, have time for you, don’t have time for you.

Alex: Right.

Steve: They come back in English instead of the language you’re trying to learn.

You’ve got no control over the situation.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: But if you’re lucky and you get a good situation then it’s very rewarding.

When I was a student in France I used to go hitchhiking in Spain.

Alex: Oh, really.

Steve: So, I mean, the Spaniards do like to talk and that’s essentially where I learned Spanish.

You’d be in there with a truck driver for like six hours.

Alex: Wow.

Steve: And he only picked me up because he wanted to talk, right?

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: So, yeah, those are great opportunities, absolutely.

So, now, of course you have excellent Korean, because we were at a meeting where I was able to hear you speak Korean, and you’re studying Chinese and so, in terms of your language learning, you’re goals are what, to continue to work on your Korean or to bring your Chinese up to the same level?

Longer term, are you looking at other languages?

Alex, the language learner, what are your goals?

Alex: My Korean I would call it conversational, but there’s absolutely room for improvement and I would definitely like to improve it as well.

One of the biggest things that I want to be able to do is to go to the library to the foreign language section, find a random book in Korean, pick it up and start reading it.

I can read some books; of course, things like novels are much easier because the vocabulary tends to be similar.

About six months ago I went to the library here in Vancouver, which has a nice Korean section and, actually, a nicer Chinese section, but I picked up a book about China, which was written in Korean which talked specifically about the political aspect of China, historical and all these other different things and I found it very difficult to read.

Actually, it was kind of frustrating because it’s a topic that I’m really interested in, but my ability in the language limited me from actually gaining and absorbing the information that was in the book.

Steve: Right.

Alex: So one of my goals is not so much to focus more on my spoken Korean, but rather to build up my vocabulary.

I think that’s the biggest limiting factor for me now.

Steve: Well, of course, as you know I’m a great believer in vocabulary.

Mind you, it depends what you want to do.

Obviously, people want to have enough of any language to be able to go out and have some drinks and so forth.

That’s fine, but I find that having the vocabulary allows you to cover so much more ground in a conversation and I also like to read.

So I agree with you, to be able to pick up a book.

In fact, that’s where LingQ started because I felt the same way about a number of languages and so I felt a tool like this would eventually help me build up.

What tends to happen is that you say novels are easy, I find novels more difficult.

Let’s say in Japanese, novels are more difficult.

Because when I was in Japan, mostly I was involved in business and I would read the newspaper.

So politics, economics, business, that’s easy; whereas, your background is more conversational and that kind of thing, so you find a novel easier.

I would say, even with Russian, like I’ll find Tolstoy, I’ve read so much of Tolstoy, Tolstoy is easy.

If I pick up another novelist it’s not easy, because they tend to use a certain range of words and expressions.

Alex: Exactly.

Steve: So I think it’s very useful to focus on one sort of subject area or one writer, for a while, to really get good at that and then move to another and then, over time, you build up the vocabulary you need to cover most situations.

Alex: Right.

Steve: Oh, that’s kind of interesting.

China in the summer, phew; in my experience it’s very warm.

Alex: Well, actually, we’ll go back a bit, because there was a second part to your question.

Steve: Right.

Alex: That is, what other languages will I be interested in learning?

Steve: Oh, yes, by all means.

Alex: I do not want to stop with Chinese, absolutely not.

There are several other languages that I would be interested in learning and most of those languages are languages that I don’t yet have an interest in, but I find that once you begin to gain an appreciation for the culture that’s really, at least for me, what sparks my interest in the language.

Because I think that culture and language are tied so closely together that without an interest in one it’s hard to effectively study and learn another.

Steve: I agree with you, absolutely.

The only thing I would add is that sometimes if you say, okay, I’m going to get into this language, I don’t have a great interest in it, but I’ll get started.

So there’s a certain amount of chicken and egg stuff going on there, you know?

It’s like this whole, you know, what they call the salami solution, you know, one slice at a time.

So at first you say gees, like Arabic, like ooh, that’s seems like an awful big task to take on, but if you do it one slice at a time and you start to get used to certain things then you get an interest, because maybe, again, you have good content to learn from and it’s about some aspect of Arabic culture that you find interesting.

Alex: Right.

Steve: It’s this thing that I mentioned, this French expression, l’appétit vient en mangeant.

You know, the appetite comes with the eating.

So sometimes you kind of have to just push yourself in one direction or another, but, obviously, the stronger the motivation the better.

No question.

No question.

Alex: So, was it hot. In Beijing…

Steve: Sorry. Before you get there, what would be the third language?

Alex: Well, it would be…

Steve: What direction?

So far you’re an Asia specialist.

Alex: Yes.

I think I will probably go for another European language, but I’m not sure yet.

I do have a bit of experience with Japanese, but most of it I’ve forgotten, unfortunately.

But…it’s hard to say.

Steve: Okay.

Alex: You know, it could be Japanese, but it could be something like Italian or Spanish.

Steve: Alright, we’ll leave that as a question mark…

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: …and we’ll close out with the weather. How hot was it?

Alex: I arrived in China on the 4th of August and in Beijing it was quite warm.

It’s always humid, regardless of the temperature, but it was very warm, especially for the first about two weeks.

I found that I constantly had to bring a towel with me, wipe my sweat with the towel, stuff it back in my backpack and then immediately pull out the bottle of water.

I found myself drinking, you know, five or six bottles of water a day.

Steve: Wow.

Alex: Constantly having to re-hydrate myself.

Steve: You know it’s not humid in the winter.

It’s very dry once you get to the fall.

Alex: Is it?

Steve: Oh, yes, very, very dry.

Anyway, but in the summer it’s hot.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: Well, look, we’ve covered a lot of different subjects an thank you very much.

I hope people enjoy this and if you have any questions for Alex, please let us know or if you want us to talk about some subject, please let us know.

Alex: Take care, everyone.

Steve: Bye for now.

Alex: Bye-bye.

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