I'm killing myself to learn Chinese (it's probably bad that I've proudly noted the 1/4 mark of my 8-week session), I should at least be giving progress reports.
They say that you should take foreign languages to understand a different way of looking at the world. I think Chinese is so different that it should count as three languages. For example, in Chinese, they don't even divide numbers the same way we do. Those crazy Europeans mix up their commas and decimals to end up with numbers like 533,8 for the number close to 534, and we Americans think that's pretty off the wall. China kicks it up several notches.
In English, we make a new unit every three digits: after tens and hundreds we get a thousand, after ten thousand and one hundred thousand we get a million, after ten million and one hundred million we get a billion, and so on.
In Chinese, they divide things into groups of four digits. The first digit is the tens, then the hundreds, then the thousands, then the new unit, which in Chinese is called a wan but what I'm going to call a jiggety. Then you have ten jiggety, one hundred jiggety, a thousand jiggety, and then a new unit: in Chinese, it's yi, but I'm going to call it a wiggety.
For relatively small numbers things aren't too complicated. You get used to the idea that one hundred jiggety means a million, that houses in the States cost tens of jiggety, and so on. But then you read an article about GDP in China (in Chinese, after your reading teacher has given you a crash course in vocabulary related to business), and you're suddenly hit with huge numbers that are difficult to translate. If you hear, for example, the number "five thousand seventy seven point four wiggety," how much is that? An online high five for the first person to comment the answer.
Speaking of the words "how much," I had an embarrassing encounter today. I was outside of my apartment juggling when a bored security guard realizes that I have skills. I pause my music when I see he wants to ask me a question, and respond based mainly on hearing "how much" in his question. I'll relate our exchange the way an impartial Chinese observer would hear it.
Guard: "How much time have you spent practicing all that?"
Foreigner: "Mm, each of these juggling clubs costs about $30, American."
My poor conversation skills didn't stop him from calling over his buddy, who was drunk on duty. The two guards spent several minutes protecting the apartment complex a few feet from me and distracted me a lot with their interest.
Nevertheless, I think my Chinese is getting better. My preparation, if not my skill, now exceeds a few people in class who love Chinese partying more than Chinese vocab. Almost every night I'm convinced that it's too hard and that I can't possibly finish everything. Then I go to sleep and it usually works out the next morning.
My Chinese family rounds out my learning. Often I get frustrated when I can't understand what my Mom says, because I'm spending so much time in class and still see no progress with her. But when I think about it, in class I'm learning expressions like "a long night means lots of bad dreams" (to convince people not to put things off) and not "when you take a crap, you don't need to throw the toilet paper into the trash can because we have a fancy toilet that can handle it."
I'm really excited that tomorrow is Friday.