As I write this story components of the English, Mandarin Chinese and Python coding language are dancing around my head. This is a story of communicative frustration, getting in my own way and trying to be a good linguistic geopat. Accordingly, this story spans the globe, including places such as Tainan, Taiwan; Ames, Iowa, USA and Shanghai, China.
I moved to Tainan, Taiwan in November 2003 for an English teaching job that I found on Dave’s ESL Cafe. Just traveling became too easy so I wanted to live in a place longer, thus my drive to teach English. I am one of those people that decided to teach English for the travel potential. That is not what kept me in the industry for 15 or so years but it is, in all transparency, why I started. I was an economic migrant with with a geopat’s thirst for culture. Language was going to be my local thing that would help keep me stimulated in a culture I was not connecting to. But Taiwan is one of the places that uses traditional Mandarin Chinese characters, these are the more complicated components (not letters) of the language. The word noodle is 麵 in traditional Chinese and 面 in simplified. Not all words look this different but enough do. Now that I know a bit more I can tell you that traditional Chinese characters retain more of the semantic meaning of the word but the simplified is much easier to read, write and learn. Less strokes were a godsend for me when learning the first 600 words in Mandarin, which is my current level. But strokes and these two written forms of the language are not the main point of story. My lack of cognitive skills and how to learn languages are.
It is now ironic when I look back at how I was learning to teach English in that 1st language teaching job in 2003 at the same time I was trying to learn a language that was all around me. It was not funny then, it was frightening. I had to drive a scooter to get around and the street signs would switch from all Chinese characters to two different romanization styles (Pinyin and Wade Giles) without warning or reason. There were times when I was riding around on a scooter and made a turn into an area I did not know only to end up on a street that only had Chinese signs I could not read. I did not have the mental space to know how to learn these words. This was 2003, so all of the resources you are about to email me did not exist yet. I was at the mercy of my neighbor and language exchange partner, Sydney (her nickname) and the endless lists of very small fonted words she thought I should memorize. I language faded really fast and then left Taiwan a few months after that.
I now want to skip ahead to Ames, Iowa for an inspiring breakthrough moment. I can almost hear our Natural Language Processing (NLP) Instructor saying “good”, I think in a tone that mixed irony and encouragement, in her thick and very hip Indian accent after we proudly showed her 10 lines of code that a week to write but that did something terribly basic. But I fear that those of you that listen to the Geopats Podcast will remember that I also lived in Nanjing, China in 2010 for a year and might have a lingering question of how that time fits into my exposure to Mandarin Chinese. It doesn’t. Immediately after arriving in Nanjing I developed a corneal disorder called Mapdot Dystrophy that made it impossible to read anything for months. It’s called mapdot dystrophy because the corneas have a maplike cluster of extra cells on them. Those maps obstructed my vision quite successfully. Thanks to a brilliant geopat Optometrist in neighboring Shanghai (she was from Chile but lived in Germany for many years before moving to China), my eyes healed to the point where I could read again. It took some time to understand my visual limitations with text size, lighting and eye dryness, all of which effect my vision still, even after corneal surgery, thanks to this hereditary condition. But this process consumed me the entire time I was in Nanjing. I had little to zero time to ponder language issues let alone read in any language.
But about a year after leaving China that time I took my mapped up eyes to Ames, Iowa to work on a PhD in Applied Linguistics and Technology.
As part of the program I had to take two coding classes: one to learn basic coding (Python) and one on Natural Language Processing (NLP). My last experience with coding was at Cal Poly ten years prior, with Visual Basic. Yes, I was skeptical that I would do much better this time but was determined to try. As some of you may have heard, Python is an “easy” coding language: this is a relative compliment. Coding can be interesting, stimulating and challenging but it is, for most sane individuals, not easy. What I personally found difficult about coding was that it was messy, very messy. After the first class I worked for said “good” Instructor as a Research Assistant. For two semesters my financial well being was directly tied to my code working. Building a website in HTML was not so bad. I used that for the blogs I made the last time I expressed myself in writing for fun in the early 2000's. But when I had to use SQLite to make the multiple files and the website “talk” to each other, that was hard. Very hard.
I still don’t completely understand how it all worked but I think it is safe to say that coding languages bring other coding languages in to do things they can not. Perhaps this is like when we use loan words like ‘dejavu’ to express something in English that we can not do with less loan wordy English words.
With much time on Stack Overflow, crying and help from said Instructor in our weekly research meetings, the reading study program I wrote finally worked. The study was completed and a paper was written about the findings. All standard academic things happened. As much as I was growing and enjoying the difficulty of this process, I realized that the goals of the PhD program and my own professional goals did not, in fact, line up. It took getting deep into the program (pun not intended but enjoy it anyway) to learn this.
And this was a hard pill to swallow.
What I didn’t know during this post PhD grieving period is that breaking through with coding would be the key to understanding how to work around my own brain to push through and finally learn another language.
I did not know many things except that I was swimming in failure. Waves of failure thoughts and emotions, if I am honest. But at the same time I was walking around Shanghai and could almost hear the giant hanzi Chinese characters calling to me, “Hey, wanna know what I mean?” I did. I took pictures of them, from afar and up close. What was happening? I did not know, I did not care. This artlike language was distracting me from my own negative inner life. I was not only curious about them, I needed them to heal.
Why was I suddenly curious about these impenetrable characters, I asked myself. Desperate for a project to work on, I decided to channel this curiosity and study Mandarin Chinese again. It was 16 years since the 1st time I tried this and during that time period online resources for learning Chinese had exploded. I also was pretty skilled in teaching language by then and I had more patience as a learner in general. Another bonus was that after two years of a PhD program schedule, “just” a 40 hour workweek felt like hardly working.
So off I went. It was still difficult but there was a patience, persistence and curiosity present that was not there before. I was learning words, could hear and reply to some phrases and did HSK 1, 2 and 3 all in one year. I was thirsty for a second language and I was in a country where was one around me in real life. I deeply needed to succeed in something, anything. I needed a good outcome.
This project desperation was a large part of why I started learning Mandarin Chinese but it was not why I kept going.
A weird thing happened then that never happened with me and languages before. Instead of getting frustrated and hiding my language textbook under many other more interesting books, I was carrying it around with me everywhere. The textbook and tons of flashcards I made. The curiosity part took over and I started to genuinely enjoy myself. I enjoyed what guest Von on a Changing Scripts episode of the Geopats Podcast called “brain burn”, that cerebral sensation when you can not absorb anything else. When you want to tip your head over, open it up and empty it so you can go back to what you were doing. That feeling was wonderful. Learning Chinese moved from a distraction to a genuinely joyful experience.
I wanted to capture this joy and, let’s be honest here, keep myself accountable, so I started a YouTube channel called Changing Scripts. I thought I was changing languages from English to Mandarin Chinese but I was actually going from English to Python to Chinese. A few months in I made a video when it dawned on me that the thing that changed, the thing that made it possible for me to finally learn to read Mandarin Chinese hanzi characters was my breakthrough in Python. For me, Python code was far harder to read than Chinese hanzi characters. And Chinese characters did NOT require other languages to do everything, they are a closed ecosystem, at least in Mandarin Chinese. For some fun, check out how Chinese characters are using in Japanese and Korean on the Omniglot website. I can logic out a number of different reasons why I prefer Chinese language learning to Python code learning but it is not a logical choice, a logical decision, a logical emotion. It just happened.
My husband often creates sports mantras for random life challenges and one of his most frequent ones is “When the practice is harder than the game, the game is easy.” For me, Python was harder than Mandarin Chinese. In “practicing” Python hard for a year I was able to overcome both my impatience and focused instead of 吃苦, literally “eat bitter” in Chinese. In American English we would say “bear down”. Both phrases focus on putting your head down and pushing through a difficult task in order to reap the rewards later. I was able to 吃苦 in Python because I could test out the code to see if it worked or not. My impatience was placated with this bit by bit language building style.
I taught this building block style of learning a language to my own students but I was never successful in learning it as a student myself. That is until I found the Leitner Box method of learning vocabulary. It’s the basis of the popular timed space repetition software used in most language learning apps these days, but in a paper based way. I used this method for learning Mandarin Chinese words, combined it with the HSK Chinese language test materials that used this building block approach as well with listening and reading practice exercises galore. I learned my first 600 words in Chinese this way.
My magic language learning recipe seemed to be 1. combining my new patience with this 2. coding persistence and 3. a focus on the part of a language I connect with the most (reading).
Currently I am stuck at an HSK 3 level but not worried. I am learning Chinese slower now but I am not stopping. Absolutely not. This kind of a breakthrough is not something I want to let go of. But even if I did, I believe that my brain would still have benefited from having done both of these things, learning Python and elementary Mandarin Chinese. Actually, I have so much so not stopped that I plan on podcasting about my learning process and progress again DAILY in November for NaPodPoMo, National Podcast Post Month. NaPodPoMo is an event similar to National Novel Writing Month, but focuses on daily podcasts instead of daily writing. If you care to listen in during this language learning podcast moment, you can find me on the Geopats Podcast. 谢谢您