Nostalgia and life lessons in learning to read Chinese
Mary Leighton’s post earlier this week about feeling like a child when learning a language made me reflect on my own return to childhood through my learning of Chinese.
One challenge of being a kid again linguistically is finding reading material that you can actually read. For beginners—and even intermediate learners—newspapers and magazines are tough. Blogs can be good because they’re often written in more conversational language. But for those of us who love novels, nothing feels quite the same as getting into a really great story. The trick with reading novels in a language you’re learning is finding something that matches your level and your interests.
Over the years I’ve bought several adult novels written in Chinese, but trying to get through them was simply too discouraging when I felt like I was reaching for the dictionary at the end of every sentence. It took me a long time to accept that I would have to read children’s books, but once I got to that point it did fabulous things for my learning.
When I lived in China I was hooked on a series about a young boy and his pals who solve supernatural mysteries. For a while it was all I read, until I picked up a Chinese translation of Ramona Quimby, Age 8. Now, I generally don’t like to read translations of books I’ve read before because there’s a danger of relying on your knowledge of the story instead of actually reading the words. (I had to put down Harry Potter when I found myself just skipping over new vocabulary because I already knew what was going on; sadly, I never learned how to say “Horcrux” in Mandarin.)
But, the prospect of reuniting with one of my favourite fictional characters was just too tempting, so I travelled back two decades and began rediscovering my eight-year-old self in Chinese. Not only did I learn some useful words like “indignation” and “orangutan,” but (spoiler alert!) I also got to relive Ramona’s humiliation when she cracks a raw egg on her head in front of all her friends. I got to experience again the betrayal she feels when she overhears her teacher making fun of her. And when Ramona’s father gives her and Beezus erasers as back-to-school gifts, I relearned the Chinese word for eraser and was reminded of the days when getting a tiny gift was a huge joy.
Finally, I get to experience Ramona’s world from an adult perspective—now that I live on my own and can barely keep up with housework (with no kids!) I can totally understand how Ramona’s mother makes the fatal error of grabbing a raw egg instead of a boiled one. I get to be an adult and a kid simultaneously, while still learning—what could be better?