How to know if you mastered a language

I learned multiple languages throughout my life and am actually adding another one (Russian) at this moment. Of course I learn languages because I find it fun, and it is very nice to be able to list more than 4 languages you can speak. But at the same time, it can be quite frustrating to get a certain fluency in these different languages.

The language this counts the most for in my case is Chinese. I have a Chinese face, which is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is very convenient to be able to blend into streets in East-Asia and not have anyone question if I am a local or not. At the same time it places certain expectations on you that I cannot meet. Because I am a foreigner there. But nobody believes me.

When I was still studying Chinese, I started out speaking it very badly. I know that because I was reminded of it everytime I talked to locals. Even more so since I hung out with Dutch-Chinese friends who spoke Wenzhounese or Cantonese at home and thus sounded a lot more natural. New friends even told me that they could not really understand me for the first 6 months in Chinese, but somehow everything had worked out fine.

Generally, my conversations would go something like:

Q: Can you tell me where the subway station is?
A: ThesubwaystationisoverthereandyoujustgonorththenturnleftandarriveatentranceA.
Q: Sorry, can you repeat?
A: Howcomeyoucannotunderstand? WhyisyourChinesesobad?
Q: I am not Chinese, can you talk a bit slower?
A: YouarenotChinese? ButyoulookChinese!
Q: Please, just tell me where the subway station is.
A: Go north. Then turn left.

For most ‘general’ foreigners, the conversation goes something like:

Q: Ni hao, can you tell me where the subway station is?
A: Oh my! Your Chinese is so good! The subway station is north and then turn left.

Quite a difference and it caused me to be pretty frustrated while learning Chinese. Now that I am more fluent, in a foreign environment and not expected to speak Chinese, I get the opposite. After all these years people sudenly start complimenting me. Saying that for a foreigner (the keyword of course) my Chinese is very good. And I always think to myself: “TOO LATE, I WILL NOT ACCEPT YOUR COMPLIMENT. SHOULD HAVE SAID THAT ABOUT 10 YEARS EARLIER.” Plus, now it makes me question my level of Chinese. Is it only good because they know I am a foreigner? Do I now also have the ‘benefit’ of foreigner bias?

I guess it is asking yourself these questions that shows you have some proficiency.

Why watching TV shows is tiring

So I was staying at a friend’s place for a week while visiting Beijing. She has her TV linked up with the Youku (local YouTube) app, which means she can stream anything that is on there on her TV.

My own TV mainly functions as a washing/clothing rack and card stand, so it was nice to actually watch something on it. I always aim or have the intention to watch more TV or TV shows, yes the stuff that all kids dream about, because listening more to Chinese people talking never hurts.

There is only 1 problem that I established early on: TV shows wear me out.

I remember watching TV shows when I was younger and getting increasingly frustrated and irritated by them as I watched them more regularly. The way that everything is drawn out, the staging of certain emotions and the second-hand embarrassment of some things that are being said. These points all play out the same when I watch a Chinese TV show.

Sure, I pick up some new words or neat way to say things. But the texts are equally overwrought, the acting as overdone and the cliches largely the same. Moreover, Chinese TV shows, especially those involving competition, always emphasize the humility of their participants. They have superhuman discipline, need to hammer down that they had a lot of help getting where they are now and how proud they are of being Chinese.

This is to say that for me, watching a TV show is almost equally unattractive as just regular studying. I remember being on exchange in China and once having the chance to be audience member to a, to be honest, quite boring TV program.

I almost fell asleep. Literally.

I never watched that show, obviously.

Animated Animals: It is the sound of the underground

You walk to a subway entrance and look around. People silently go in and out, some bumping into you silently or with little more than a grunt. You look around and suddenly see a bird hopping around. It hops to the elevator, seemingly waiting for someone to open it. As inconspicuous as possible you walk to the elevator and press the button. The bird and you enter.

Once inside you cannot contain your curiosity. “Excuse me, where are you going?” The bird cocks its head at you. It spreads its wings, is that how they point at stuff? “Today is the market.” As if that should clear up everything. You are just about to ask your next question when the doors open. The bird quickly and silently flies into the subway corridor.

You try to follow it while trying not to be too obvious that you are following something. The bird flies around a corner, past the security off to where the subway arrives. You quickly go through security, swipe your card and practically run downstairs. On the platform, you vaguely spot something at the far end.

The bird is in front of a door on which it knocks once with its beak. Without a sound it opens slightly, allowing the bird to hop in and you wriggle you way through as well. “Hi Mel, how are you doing?.” You suddenly hear the bird say. You look down and see a cord is attached to the door handle which is held by a mole. He looks at you with his blind eyes, slowly nodding for you two to continue.

You are in a kind of janitor room with cleaning supplies all around you. “It will be a bit of a walk, but you can grab something to eat at the market.” The bird says ahead of you. It flies through another door at the end of the room and you follow it into a dark tunnel. The dirt tunnel loops around and you can hear the subway passing far away at regular intervals. Although you seem far underground, the temperature is actually pretty warm and luckily there are no sidetracks.

Suddenly you hear sounds. Voices, sizzling, singing, music, the kinds of sounds you hear on squares throughout China. Within a few steps, the tunnel opens wide and reveals a square. One full of mainly animals, a few humans, and a lot of activities. There are cats and foxes playing mahjong, pigs and goats stuffing themselves at food stalls, turtles and fish lounging in a pond, peacocks and magpies are dancing in formations and there even seems to be some matchmaking going on between dogs looking for their loyal partners. This is a place that merits some further discovery.

Animated Animals: birds of a feather talk together

Outdoors, nothing is as easy as it once seemed. There are decibel meters everywhere. It is finally more acceptable to stare at your phone all the time, since it is safer to chat with each other digitally.

However, especially in China many pets and birds in particular serve a distinct social function. These birds of course learn to talk and twitter away quite literally, which is fine as long as they are confined. Some do escape however, which created pockets in the wild where it is allowed to talk out loud.

So after your first work day, you decide to go to such a park. It is so quiet on the streets these days, it is unsettling. At the entrance of the park, there is a large map marking spots where talking is allowed. Another sign reminds you that there are decibel meters and cameras recording, so anyone talking too loudly in any other parts will be fined.

Passing the gates, you follow the path. There are still people dancing and elderly men intensively playing chess. You hear a bunch of different sounds coming from those crowds. Apparently, people have found new ways of communicating, either with clapping in morse, which works especially well if you are trying to make a point while playing chess or dancing the flamenco.

You walk on and arrive at a fork in the road. The path leading to the talking zone, leads into a dense forest. Once you enter it, you suddenly hear something that is quite overwhelming. Everyone is talking. Conversations are being had. People and birds laugh en get merry.

There are some cameras in between the trees, and all the birds are on leashes. This spot is specifically meant to only have birds. After some talks, the others tell you all outside spots are separated as much as possible. Also, everyone needs an outdoors license to be sure only well-behaved pets are taken outdoors.

After taking a look around, you sit down next to an older man who is having an animated conversation with his parakeet. “So today’s grains where definitely not the most tasty you say?” “Nope,” the bird answers “They just come out whole. It is terrible.”

“Do you have a special diet?” You chime in. The bird tilts his head and makes a sound like a sigh. “I just have an incredibly sensitive stomach. You know how some within our bird family will just eat anything of the street? I am not like that. I have standards.” The man scratches the bird’s head. “I have a little side business in luxury bird feed now. We are crossing boundaries.”

“Crossing boundaries,” you think. Would there be any spots where these talking animals meet?

Animated Animals: what the duck?

I was traveling a few weeks ago and while climbing a mountain, I suddenly thought: “What if animals could talk? Surely it would make mountains and forests a much less quiet place.” I also just remembered seeing the headline somewhere that currently most ducks for Chinese dishes are imported from Great Britain. So combining the 2, I imagine it would end up something like this…

It is the same as with humans. If you do not talk to them, they do not learn to speak. Since animals are now able of learning human languages, there have been many new rules, especially at farms and outdoors areas. Everyone there needs to use sign language, to preserve some quietness and order. Sure, monkeys may be able to catch onto that, but that conveniently also scales back the amount of zoos.

So, one day you saw an add for a Business Development Manager at a Duck Farm. Such positions are now very unpopular, due to moral considerations. However, that makes for little competition, so you decide to give it a try.

“English is the main language for this task.” Your supervisor says. “We import most of the ducks, so we need fluent speakers. We also have a few English major students interning for us.” No wonder that the level of English suddenly became much higher in China. There are that many more opportunities to practice, although you doubt how in-depth these conversations could go.

“It is no option to let them handle everything by themselves under human supervision?” You ask. Your supervisor shakes his head. “Only some are well-educated enough to communicate with us. Being able to talk does not mean they have consciousness, and many conditions in large-scale facilities are still quite apalling. If you let ducks talk to each other, they will quickly veer off-topic and start complaining about putting on weight, dirty feathers and swollen feet. And in the end, most ducks are slaughtered of course.”

With that in mind, you start working and calling. “Donny speaking here, how can I help you.” You wonder what it looks like on the other side. Is the duck in an office? Is the phone strapped to his body? Is there a human supervising him? After exchanging some polite conversation, you discuss the quality of the newest batch, transport, logistics and some other business.

With the work part of the conversation coming to an end, you decide to delve a little bit deeper. “Donny, does it feel at all strange to be part of this?”

You hear a sigh, obviously you are not the first one asking these questions. “Well, it is certainly a limited life of course. If I could fly and feel fine, I would but our bodies simply are not built like that. In the meantime, instead of just eating all day, it is nice to get a break from that by talking to you guys.”

Truth be told, you never gave a thought about career choices for ducks. “So is it tough to learn how to do this?”

“Nah, not really. We have scripts and cards, so that is the easy part. Also for off-topic conversations, we have a lot of practice. But I imagine that our counterparts living in the wild have some more variety. Stories of the black market do trickle down here, with some of us selling inside knowledge, stuff like that. Another reason not to keep us alive for too long.”

“You can just straight up tell me that?” You ask in amazement.

Donny has a short laugh. “Well, by now it is common knowledge. You guys cannot keep us apart anyway, so there is bound to be some of us able to get away. Anyhow, my feet are hurting so I am hanging up. Looking forward to be in touch again!”

A click and he is gone. You have quite a lot to think about now and decide to go for a stroll. Perhaps that will take your mind off of things.

Li’s Lievelingswoorden: Even kijken

Kijken doe je met je ogen. Althans, dat kreeg ik altijd te horen toen ik klein was. Niet dat ik ernaar luisterde natuurlijk. Ook op latere leeftijd ging ik nog vaak tegen mijn opvoeding in. Sommige vrienden werden gek van mijn rondneuzen tussen spullen waarbij alles aangeraakt en bevraagd werd.

Nu ik in China zit, heb ik ook meer dan genoeg te kijken. En ja, de Chinezen doen dat ook een stuk meer met hun handen, het zit in de natuur! Iedereen leest hier boeken uit in de boekwinkel (ze gaan er echt voor zitten) en zelfs bordjes met ‘niet aanraken’ worden routineus genegeerd. Een droomland wat dat betreft voor mij. Komt bij dat ik me onlangs realiseerde dat het Chinese karakter voor kijken geïnterpreteerd kan worden als een hand en oog gecombineerd. Klopt vast niet helemaal, maar wel een leuk idee.

Als we echter nog wat verdergaan, is het helemaal niet zo dat je kijken per se fysiek hoeft te doen. En daarmee komen we bij deze uitspraak: “Even kijken”. Net zoals alle fijne stopwoorden zijn deze ook multifunctioneel. Volgt er een komma, drie puntjes, of een ander stopwoordje (“hoor”)?

Zo blijkt maar weer dat we ook niet noodzakelijk met onze ogen kijken. De helft van de tijd dat iemand iets vraagt (wat we gaan eten, weekendplannen, boeken die ik nu aan het lezen ben, wanneer ik voor het laatst heb opgeruimd) kan ik heel goed mijn antwoord beginnen met “even kijken” en gewoon in het niets staren. Of juist mijn oog of beide ogen sluiten om een blik in mijn hersenen te werpen waar toch de meeste kennis is die ik bezit.

Dus ja, kijken doe ik het liefste met mijn handen of mijn hersenen. Komt misschien ook doordat ik een bril draag, dat mijn ogen pas op de derde plaats komen.

Li’s lievelingswoorden: Dinges

Nederlands is niet de mooiste taal. Het is mijn moedertaal, de taal waar ik het meeste in thuis ben, maar mooi is het zeker niet. Over talen zoals Frans, Spaans en Italiaans hoef je natuurlijk niet te discussiëren. Pure poëzie rolt daar over de tong, ongeacht wat de inhoud of betekenis van datgene wat gehoord wordt mag zijn.

Toegegeven, ik heb wat meer waardering voor Nederlands hier in het buitenland gekregen. Niets zo leuk dan in een in China vrij onbekende taal te praten, roddelen en becommentariëren. Jammer dat het vaak met Engels wordt verward, omdat veel Chinezen dat ook niet verstaan, maar de gezichtsuitdrukking wanneer taal en daarmee ook mijn nationaliteit worden onthuld is onbetaalbaar (vind meer over deze situaties in het Engels in deze post).

En ja, zodra je meer talen leert besef je des te beter welke woorden ontbreken in het Nederlands. Maar je realiseert je ook dat het Nederlands toch wel woorden heeft die je niet zou willen missen. Daarom hierbij een ode aan een van mijn lievelingswoorden: dinges.

din·ges (de; m,v; meervoud: dingesen)
1 (informeel) naam waarmee je personen of zaken aanduidt waarvan je de naam niet wilt of kunt noemen


Misschien heeft het met de klank te maken. Het Engelse equivalent ‘thingy’ klinkt een beetje kinderachtig. Dat dingetje, nee dat is bij lange na niet stevig genoeg om een brede categorie aan te duiden. Misschien heeft het ermee te maken dat een deel van de Nederlandse aanwijswoorden met een d begint: die, deze, dit, dat. Dat allitereert wel mooi. Misschien omdat de vorm vloeibaar is. Je hebt een dinges, gaat dingesen, iets is dinges, de dinges in de dinges dingesen, moderne taalkunst.

Ik gebruik dit woord te pas en onpas, in moeder- en vreemde taal. Zo hebben mijn Chinese, Japanse, Koreaanse, Australische, Franse en Duitse vrienden die ik in China leerde kennen tijdens mijn studie allemaal in meerdere of mindere mate ervaring met dit woord. Het is voor een Nederlands woord ook nog eens best goed uit te spreken door buitenlanders.

In zekere zin zijn dit soort tussenwoorden op een bepaalde manier onbelangrijk en tegelijkertijd heel belangrijk voor een taal. Aan de ene kant heeft het geen invloed op grammatica, uitspraak of schrijfwijze. Maar het laat wel zien dat een taal leeft. Genoeg leeft om dit soort woorden nodig te hebben of dat de gebruikers in ieder geval deze behoefte hebben. En ja, als levende gebruiker van een levende taal dinges ik dus met heel mijn hart.

Film rewriting: La La Land

Shamelessly plugging into the publicity that La La Land already has because of the Oscars and its popularity. Yes, I saw the movie, I even saw it twice. I liked it a lot, love the music, understand (part of) its popularity.

So I am not going to tell you the synopsis of this film, since it is everywhere on the internet and otherwise you know how to go to (or you just learned now how to). But basically it is a slightly more realistic lovestory with some very good music inserted.

Actually, that is one of my main complaints, there is not enough music in it. Okay, granted I looked for the full music soundtrack on my Chinese (slightly illegal?) music app and it had more than 40 numbers. However, half of them are instrumental tunes which only last for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

I absolutely loved the first 40 minutes of the film and the first two songs. The opening is one of the happiest traffic jams you will ever see, and I whispered to my friend when we would ever be standing in such a traffic jam with 40 handsome young people who can dance and sing. Shortly afterwards the second song follows which is a nice twist on the getting ready sequence that usually happens before the party.

I reckon it is because the film is between an actress and a musician, so the instrumentals get a lot of time to shine. I did miss some unison singing and flashmob dancing though. I remember watching the remake of the Hairspray film as a musical film a few years ago with some French friends. They were clearly not into musicals, since I heard them whispering at a certain point: “They are singing a bit too much.” Which of course is the whole purpose of a musical film, but never mind.

So to get to the purpose of this writing exercise, herewith some recommendations for La La Land:

  1. I understand it is an idealized version of having it difficult, but being able to regularly go to parties, afford a nice apartment (even shared) and take off from work when you want to (and not even serving customers adequately), does really defy expectations quite a bit. Would it not be nice if she had some harsher conditions to go against?
  2. So can we have a bit more motivation for the change of heart for these starstruck lovers to start looking at each other differently? I mean, he swipes sand in her shoe and then they start dancing. Why yes, is that not a great dating move?
  3. For the final reel of how ideally their relationship/lives should have gone, can we shorten it a bit? By this point we have already been watching for about 1,5 hours, and we can basically imagine ourselves how it should have went. The first part of re-enacting the original movie was fun, but could the family/kid part not have been shortened? Yes it could have been.

But perhaps if it was even slightly more realistic, there would not have been as many Oscar nominations and wins. Oh well, who cares about that anyway right?

About learning Japanese in China

So pretty much my next favorite country besides China, Belgium and France is Japan (probably should keep a spot for a Scandinavian country too since the chance of me finding a partner there is very high). Because I have been slacking with my Japanese studies since about 2013, mainly keeping it up through watching anime and reading manga at about one page per 15 minutes, I found a buddy to start doing Japanese again with. In China.

If I could say anything about the Chinese education system without really participating in it, I would sum it up as being: rigid, not very interactive and faithful to the textbook. This would actually turn out to be true more or less once I started. I could start a separate career as diviner!

For a Dutch person, this is of course quite the opposite of what we like to have. We tend to focus more on interaction (even if it is students saying a lot ‘I do not know the answer’), flexibility (ooh the ‘Leids Kwartiertje‘) and being creative with content (‘Yes teacher, I feel watching a movie would be very helpful in the learning process.’). So how does it feel to experience a wholly different system?

Rigid: Well this is mainly manifested in the way that each class is pretty much the same structure. 20 minutes discussing the new words, 10 minutes of reading the standard text, 1 hour of grammar and 30 minutes exercise. The fact that I know this structure already after only 2 lessons is in itself kind of amazing.

Not very interactive: Yup, this matches. I just described that we had only 10 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of practice. This is still divided by about 5-7 people. Furthermore, it is very easy to just not participate. The fact that we have teenagers (yes, 15-year olds. Nostalgic.) means that they are readily using this. One of two has clearly been sent here by his parents as extracurricular activity and is consequently one of the least motivated persons I have ever experienced studying a language. The girl obviously has watched (quite) some anime since she insterts a ‘Nani?’ (Japanese for what) between everything and is just in general sassy in a way that is not really constructive (‘Congrats teacher on writing the wrong character.’).

Faithful to the textbook: We have a bingo! Incidentally, even the short test (which is really not worthy of being called a test) uses the exact same sentences as the textbook examples. Like, word for word. And then the teacher advises us that we should really not look in our books. It is quite cute, if it was not about something as relatively serious as teaching a language.

So I might sound quite negative here. The fact that we are cramped in a small rectangular room which is about 15 square meters (does remind you of Japan in a certain sense I guess) and an atmosphere that is lethargic does not help either. However, there are also bright spots:

  1. I follow the class with a Dutch-Turkish friend, so we are the foreign stars of the class.
  2. My level is easily the highest in the class (which does not say a lot, this is the second-to-lowest level we are following) so I can act smug and be a know-it-all legitimately.
  3. It is effective to at least be actively engaged with this language for 4 hours a week. Those are 4 more hours than before!

So that also consitutes a bingo. Guess it is a tie for now.