Long time, no see.
Recently, I’ve been learning a lot of Mandarin whilst in Hong Kong, and I’ve discovered some things which I think reveal something about how we learn language.
I also think these things might be useful for other people learning Cantonese or Mandarin to read, if only as interesting questions to think about.
However, I really don’t want to bother making anything long or academically rigorous. I want to write everything in the shortest possible manner, without endless qualifications such as ‘under conditions A and B, C occurred’.
With this in mind, I would like to make a few initial assumptions which will apply to any further posts in this series, should I have time to write and publish them.
Assumption #1: Relativity
Everything in life is dealt with in a relative way. Wealth is a good example: if you had $1m, you’d probably be the richest guy on the street if you moved to, say, Kenya, but it would be nothing special to someone living in New York.
As such, I might write times which I make up off the top of my head – for example, ‘it took me three hours to learn dialogue X, but six hours to learn dialogue Y.’ The point is that Y takes appreciably longer than X, and is not that Y took exactly three hours longer. (The concreteness should assist understanding, but one shouldn’t get too wrapped up in it.)
Assumption #2: No Absolutes
What exactly does the word ‘native’ mean? What is the difference between ‘native’ and ‘near-native’? How does one factor age into the problem – a ‘near-native’ L2 speaker who is 15 years old will totally outplay a ‘native’ L1 speaker who is 5 years old.
It will be much easier for me to just classify myself as a native speaker of both English and Cantonese, rather than repeatedly making the same qualification of ‘near-native’, or ‘native level for a high-school graduate’ (or whatever).
Assumptions #3, #4 and #5
These kind of play off the first two assumptions.
- I’ve finally achieved native-level fluency in Cantonese.
- I can read Chinese-language newspapers at a native-level speed.
- My Mandarin listening and speaking skills are at about ‘intermediate’ level.
Qualification: in practice, ‘intermediate’ means ‘sometimes gets lost in conversations’.
That is all, for now.