Overcoming the Language Gap

Overcoming the Language Gap

While taking a shower the other night, I thought about how much better we can communicate compared to when D and I first met. Close family and friends know that when we first met neither of us spoke the same language. Although I knew how to read Tibetan, my basic words were: Hello, thank you, eat, drink, I’m full, no thank you. Hardly a way to have a conversation at all. D knew about the same in English. He can speak Tibetan and Chinese, while I could speak English and Korean (completely useless in this context). However, I was learning Tibetan so I knew that I could try to pick up the language slowly.

It hasn’t been an easy ride for us communicating with each other. The first 5 months of our relationship relied heavily on google, papago, or baidu translate between Chinese and English. And if there is one thing to be certain, translations are never accurate and things can be misconstrued and lead to misunderstandings. We were also doing long distance at the time so our only communication was through text and short voice messages or video chats where we would use what we had learned in Tibetan and English.

Then last summer, I decided I would come stay with him and his family for 6 weeks as I had a long summer vacation and it would be a good chance to improve my Tibetan! The first two weeks I was like a fish out of water and had no fucking idea what was being said. I felt completely useless and had a hard time talking to anyone other than D’s niece who didn’t care that my Tibetan was shit. Weeks three to four proved to be the point where I actually could break down the new sentences I was hearing and began responding more to his family when they talked to me. We still relied heavily on the translation app for clarification and things, but it was getting better. By week five to six, I actually was feeling comfortable and confident despite my small vocabulary. I was getting used to everyday phrases and we could have small conversations. Are you hungry? Do you want some tea? Do you want more rice? Come help. What are you doing? Can you wash this? So slowly our communication was improving, but as things were going smoothly it came to an end when I began traveling with a friend.

One of the good things was that I was able to videochat for longer now while I was traveling to check in and it made such a difference. Originally D was supposed to be in his hometown for another four months, but luckily he decided he wanted to come to Chengdu and so after a month of long distance he moved in. This is when a big break came for me. My daily listening and speaking in Tibetan went up immensely. I still struggled with some words if they weren’t written down I had a hard time remembering them, but after a month of living together, I could actually notice the difference. D on the other hand went out and bought some English learning books and tried to begin self-studying, but he was working too much to devote anytime to it. Although he was improving slowly, he was frustrated by his progress.

Then came our one year anniversary in February and around that time D decided to take a break from work for a few months to study during the day, and it made a huge difference. He has worked really hard on his pronunciation and over the last four months his English has improved a lot. His vocabulary has expanded and most times now we don’t use the translation app between us, unless it is for something nitty gritty. We are bound to simplified grammatically fucked conversations, but we both correct each other when we make mistakes and are trying to improve.

Now we converse in both English and Tibetan, sometimes we talk to each other in the opposite, but normally we use Tibetan a bit more than English. I’ve made an effort to use English more often as well so that D can practice and listen. In the last week, we’ve told each other we really need to start studying and making progress so that our communication gets easier and easier. I know it will slowly, and he is right. We do need to put more time into studying, especially me.

Last semester, while his English was improving my Tibetan stagnated a bit in my opinion. I was working a lot and was so tired I had no energy to devote to my studies and I was very frustrated by this. So here I am trying to think of how I can improve quickly. Vocabulary is definitely the answer. I’m hoping to try to learn 600 new words a month, it is a lofty goal, but I hope that I can stick to it.

Despite our progress we still have points we get frustrated with each other because we can’t communicate well. It passes quickly and we move on and keep enjoying each other’s company, but we both long for the day where we can sit and chat and have long interesting conversations. It may be a year or two off before we can really talk like that, but we are on our way. After a year and a half together we have made a lot of progress and I wonder where we will be in six months or a year. How much will our communication improve? Will we notice the gradual difference? Will the need for a translation app disappear completely? It is hard to say, but it is a goal.

One of the benefits of us both not knowing the other language is that we both have a chance to learn and improve. If we started in one language only, whether that be English or Tibetan and could understand each other well, it would be very unlikely that one of us would pick up the other language out of it being too easy and convenient to bother. So I look at it as maybe it is more of a struggle, but we both are working towards it and we can only improve from here. So here is to language acquisition!

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