Speaking Chinese, Almost

Last week I had my first, scheduled, online discussion with “Amy” from Rosetta Stone. When I finished, I wished I knew how to say “Oy vey!” in Mandarin.

A “scheduled online discussion” in Rosetta World means that for thirty minutes you get to talk to someone who is a native speaker of the language. I was excited, because I had a lot of questions about syntax, and I really needed some help. At the designated time I logged on with my pre-prepped microphone headset and waited. Soon Amy’s voice called out.

Nǐ hǎo, Dawn!”

Nǐ hǎo,” I responded. My stomach quivered a bit; I’m not comfortable wrapping my tongue around this language yet, and even the “hello” set me off. But this was all part of the famous Rosetta Stone process. I needed to do it, and I was ready to go with Amy, who is a native Mandarin-speaker.

What I didn’t realize is that it was the only language she would use in our chat.

I knew that she was going to stick to words I’d learned two lessons earlier. At the time, I’d been on Unit 1, Lesson 4. Amy was quizzing me on stuff from Unit 1, Lesson 2. Should have been a piece of cake. It was more like a piece of mud pie. I couldn’t even remember the word for “milk” (niú nǎi).  I felt like a clueless two year-old.

Except that a two-year old Chinese kid would know the word for milk.

I should be better at this, I screamed in my head. I’m a writer, for Pete’s sake! I have a better-than-average command of the English language! I manipulate words on a regular basis!

Making things worse, during the chat it became clear that Amy alsohad an excellent command of the English language. (And she pronounced my name as though she was American.) But she stuck to speaking in Mandarin. She’s probably supposed to do that, however on-the-verge-of-tears the Rosetta Stone customer is. Maybe it’s some Tiger-Teacher philosophy.

She was patient with me. “Tǐng hǎo!” she would encourage when I got things right… which was usually after she’d had to type the answer on the screen. A few times I broke down and had to use English to explain that I didn’t know something. Or that I didn’t understand what Amy was asking me to say, like when she asked if I had a cat, as she pointed to a photo of a cat. (It was only an “Oh, duh!” after I understood what she was asking. Then I couldn’t remember the word for “no,” which, it turns out, isn’t “no.” Because “no” means no, except in Mandarin.)

It was the longest half-hour of my life. I literally breathed a sigh of relief when she said our time was up. “Zài jiàn, Dawn.” Zài jiàn, Amy!

I’m still going forward with the course. I want to learn this language. Eventually, I’ll even schedule my next chat session. But am I looking forward to it?

Bù shì!


Dawn Rinken may not have a complete hold on Mandarin, but she does know about the English language. Her blog The Mouse’s Soapbox holds her musings on the world.