The first complete series of Mandarin phrases that I mastered after I moved to Taiwan went like this: “Wo yao yi bei kafei natie . . . da bei . . . dui, yao niu nai . . . yao yidian tang.” Quickly and independently ordering coffee—a nice big cup . . . with milk . . . and a little sugar—has been the most essential element of my survival. I practice this every day at my local 7-Eleven (“local” meaning the one halfway down the block, not the one a full block away—they’re everywhere here). There the clerks’ English is usually pretty spotty to nonexistent, and pointing to the coffee machine inexplicably and maddeningly results only in blank stares or a long stream of comments or questions.
My previous experience with Mandarin, through a visit to China ten years ago, imprinted a similar string of phrases in my brain—one that involved ordering as many bottles of pijiu as I wanted. I guess now, with a two-year-old son to get me out of bed earlier than I’d like, coffee has become much more crucial than beer.
My ability to guarantee myself a coffee supply took shape five months ago. I’ve picked up some Mandarin basics since then—like hello, thanks, and How much? But, unfortunately, I haven’t made much progress on routinely useful vocabulary and phrases that would allow me to gain confidence with basic dialogues. I want to learn Mandarin well enough that I can do more than order a drink in a few years time, and ideally well enough that I can use it professionally. That will be a valuable résumé builder.
Hopefully, I’m on that path now that I’ve gotten started with Rosetta Stone Chinese. I’ve made it through several lessons in the past week or two, and I think I could definitely expand my diet beyond coffee and beer. I’m picking up vocabulary pretty quickly, partly because I’ve heard a lot of it in passing over the last few months (though it hasn’t really stuck until now). More importantly, especially in terms of my confidence, I’m becoming familiar with things that have been hard to pick up on through casual efforts, such as syntax, conjunctions, and terms for key verbs like to be, to have, to do, and to make. With the Rosetta Stone program, I’m learning how everything comes together to make a sentence, and this makes a huge difference. With all the helpful visual cues, I’m able to avoid being confused by the many similar sounds and the seeming overlap in vocabulary. Last, but not least, I can now compete with my son when he’s showing off how well he knows his colors.