Every time we visit Malaysia my conversations with Pi Wen's mother are perfunctory at best. She knows very little English, I know very little Chinese. There are lots of hand gestures and eye contact, but very little verbal communication.
For a year I listened to CDs, just 15 minutes a day, that gave me a basic foundation in Mandarin. This began last August, I was hoping to be able to converse when we went to Malaysia this January. But my confidence was low and I barely spoke except for a few small phrases. At that time I decided it was best to take a real class, which I'm now doing through the UC Berkeley Extension.
My goals are ambitious but attainable: to be able to read, write and speak fluently, and to learn characters so I do not always have to rely on pinyin (the romanized version of Chinese). I'm 35 years old now, figure this will be achieved around the age of 50. Since I've promised Pi Wen I'll live to be 100 that means I'll spend at least half my life fluent in Mandarin.
It's been a rough slog these first few weeks of class. We meet every Monday and Thursday from 6:30-9:00, and our excellent instructor Natasha Wild estimates that we should spend 10-12 hours of prep time outside of class. She's right--that's the only way to really get the tones, understand the sentence construction and vocabulary, and learn how to properly construct the characters. Thus far I have not even come close to alloting this much time, although during week three I grew more disciplined (we are three weeks into a nine week term.) I'm not taking the course for credit, so in the end I'm only accountable to myself.
When I was earning my MLIS, from 2000-2002, the hardest thing about the program was the commute. I lived in Evanston, IL and school was in River Forest. That meant commuting from the northern to western suburbs of Chicago without a car, a journey that required two trains and a bus (sometimes I walked 40 minutes rather than catching the bus). Class was from 7-10 PM, I had to leave work at 5 PM to barely make it. Sometimes I'd pack a light dinner that I ate while waiting for the second train, other times I ate fast food when I arrived in River Forest. I would arrive home close to midnight, except when a classmate who was going the same way gave me a ride. Without a ride on the way back I took commuter rail instead of the El, and always had to get to the rail station in time for that hour's train or have to wait a full hour more. I took classes in downtown Chicago, which vastly eased the commute, as much as I could.
Although the commute was hard the course content was manageable. It was taught in English, for one thing. The concepts were straightforward: here are resource types, this is how they are organized, and so forth. If I could do it over I'd focus more intently on knowledge management, a concept that seemed faddish and pretentious at the time. Oh well--I got the degree, and ten years later here I am.
Being back in school after ten years, and to learn Chinese, has been tougher than I thought. The commute is much easier even if parking near campus is a pain (I drive these days). The course material is very challenging, not surprisingly. But the big difference is that my job today is much more demanding than when I was in library school. Back then I managed the grant programs for the Massage Therapy Foundation, which was an enjoyable and not too taxing pursuit. I didn't think about work when not there, and the only busy times of our year were preparing for Board meetings. Today I have much more responsibility at Samuel Merritt, and to some extent the job is always with me.
Not that I'm complaining--as far back as my time as an Associate Fellow of the National Library of Medicine I told people I wanted to be a library director. Now it's happened, and I'd rather be in the hot seat than the background. But it turns out to leave less mental space for additional pursuits than I'd realized.
My initial estimate for when I'd be fully fluent in Mandarin was at 45 years old. I've pushed it back to 50 now that I see how slowly I'm learning and how much the rest of my life impinges on my focus.
Then again...slow and steady wins the race. Learning a language is unlike learning philosophy or figuring out how to become a better person. That work is never done and there is always more to learn. Mandarin--any language--is a fixed body of knowledge. New words come along but the structure remains. So every bit of knowledge gained counts toward mastery of the whole. This challenge is solveable even if it takes a long time.