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Learn Chinese in China

This is a rant


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About a year since the last real update, I remain convinced that Chinese is simply harder for Europeans than most European languages. My Portuguese is at a conversational level, and despite having had very little active practice (I've only recently started meeting a couple of language exchange partners), I find it relatively easy to remember words and phrases, and to construct sentences, and have no problems talking for hours about different stuff, or even bargaining about second-hand cars. If I hear a word during conversation, I will remember it easily, and be able to apply it myself. It's very odd how much easier it is than with Chinese, where I need to hear a word many times, and will still forget it (tones are the first thing that slips).

Portuguese is a wonderful language. Not too challenging grammatically speaking, but the phonology is as deep as the ocean and I'm still coming to grips with all the open/close vowel alterations. None of this is crucial to being understood, but it's such a wonderful aspect of the language that I intend to master it. If anyone wants to have a taste of just how complex this stuff is to learn, this is the most comprehensive write-up I've found on the internet: http://rudhar.com/foneport/en/foneport.htm Make sure to read through all the links, it's more complicated than it seems at first glance. It's remarkably rich, and certainly one of the richest of all European languages in terms of phonology.

I've talked to many people who were frustrated that people always addressed them in English and refused to practice Portuguese with them. Portugal is like that if you talk to young people, and much unlike France or Spain in that regard. I haven't had this problem myself, though, despite looking markedly un-Portuguese. If addressed in English (this area is full of tourists, so this is common), I answer back in Portuguese, and that settles it. I remain convinced that it's a combination of your accent and the confidence with which you approach the conversation

In terms of reading books, understanding TV, and the like, all of it was much easier than Chinese. I've watched 50 episodes of a youth soap opera and it was more effective than the hundreds of hours I've spent on Chinese. And this is despite the tendency of Portuguese of Portugal to casually swallow half the letters of the alphabet whenever possible. As I explained elsewhere, cognates, multi-syllabic words with strong morphological cues, and well-behaved stress are really useful for segmentation.

It was very interesting to follow the parallel experience of my (Chinese) girlfriend. She's not as mad about languages as I am, and doesn't particularly enjoy studying. She enrolled in a (free! go Portuguese authorities!) language course for foreign residents and has obtained an A2 certification after a year, which included learning a respectable amount vocabulary and grammar. She can read simple stuff, and can generally understand conversations if they are transcribed, but struggles to understand the spoken language and to speak herself. This is one of the situations that Benny warns people about, and while I don't seem to need (or benefit much from) Benny's approach, I think that I'll have to force her to see a language partner regularly ASAP; we have a good candidate ready, a local girl learning German.

So, while there was a period of frustration about not being fluent already, I feel much more comfortable now, and am starting to approach that "click" moment, where all the basics are in place, and I don't feel tied up by the language anymore, other than not knowing a word from time to time. I'm absolutely confident that during the few years I have left here, I'll be fluent at a very high level, and have a very good accent -- for a foreigner. As always, I'll aim for fooling a native, and we'll see how that works :) All of this was with remarkably little effort, other than making sure I got a good volume of input from reading, listening, and occasional conversation. Currently, I'm trying to understand all the quirks of vowel pronunciation in order to avoid a strong accent, and brute-forcing the conjugation tables for irregular verbs.

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"this is despite the tendency of Portuguese of Portugal to casually swallow half the letters of the alphabet whenever possible"

Haha that's especially bad in the Algarve, where it's sometimes actually called 'Algarvio', and we cut words pretty much in half at times. People from the north, Lisbon especially, speak much more clearly. I actually learnt Portuguese in about 3 weeks when I was 10, but to clarify, I'm no Benny - it's taken me 10 years to get semi-fluent Chinese :(

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At every opportunity, but not that soon I guess - was back for a couple of days in May. In the process of relocating from Singapore to Beijing now. Will have to catch up in Portugal next time :)

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When I go to Macau, which is once or twice a year, I find it interesting to listen to a Portuguese language TV show or two. When I first turn it on, I'm sure it's not Cantonese or English, but have no idea what it might be. Then, after a couple minutes, it dawns on me that it's Portuguese.

Though I speak Spanish and French, it always sounds like it would take some time and effort to get Portuguese right. Congratulations on making such good progress, @Renzhe! And thanks for taking the time to fill us in on how it compares with learning Chinese.

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