25/06/2015 08:01 BST | Updated 23/06/2016 06:59 BST

The Language Barrier


(Photo: news130.com)

For many people the hardest part of learning a language isn't getting to grips with the grammar or the spellings, the conjugations or the colloquialisms. It's the embarrassment. More specifically, getting over it.

During the last year of my degree, I had to choose an extracurricular course. None of the degree-related options really appealed to me, so I looked at the languages they had to offer. My relatives speak Cantonese but that wasn't available, so I chose Mandarin. It was hard, even back then when my brain was an eager sponge, and in that first lesson nobody wanted to repeat what the teacher was saying because it sounded completely alien, unnatural to our mouths and tongues and ears. But we soon got over it, and I ended up getting a distinction. Xièxiè lǎoshī.

But time is a healer, and in this case, that was no good thing. Life happened and maintaining my knowledge, let alone making any progress, just didn't. Studying fell by the wayside as I tried to find a job, somewhere to live and, well, myself. The latter took about five years (it's still a work in progress). When I finally found a moment of calm in my life, I went back to Mandarin and tried to refresh. But it turns out languages aren't like riding a bike. They're more like surgically operating on someone. It would be arrogant of you to think you can just pick up where you left off after however many years out of action.

And so, as I began teaching myself all over again - while searching for a teacher that I connected with - the embarrassment I'd conquered years ago returned. Only this time I just couldn't beat it. I couldn't find the confidence to say things the way I thought they were said, even to the lovely people in my life who speak Mandarin. A few weeks later, I found a teacher and, one on one with nowhere to hide and nobody else to reply for me, eventually my self-consciousness started to disappear. But it never fully departed.

Still, embarrassed or not, I had the bug for languages. I wanted to learn something else, too. So I decided to teach myself a few Cantonese words, so I could make the effort with my relatives in their native language, rather than in mine.

Last weekend we all met for lunch. I'd spent the entire duration of the meal feeling too self-conscious to say aloud any of the words I'd learnt. But nearing the end, when the last refills of tea were being poured, I turned to my eldest uncle - he's in his seventies - and blurted out '很好吃' (pronounced 'han hou hek'). Cantonese for 'delicious'. As soon as I'd said it, his face broke into a broad smile, radiating an unmistakable joy.

"You learn by speaking. We will understand what you're trying to say," he said.

Just like that, it clicked. I'd heard that advice numerous times before - speak as much as you can, don't be embarrassed about your limitations - but it didn't lodge itself into my brain until that very moment. After all, what he'd said was true. He did understand my one, probably mispronounced word. After that, I couldn't stop myself from sending voice messages to my relatives, merely offering phrases that a tourist might say to a local, definitely not relevant to anyone involved. But they sent voice messages back humouring me, replying to my 'where is the toilet?' and 'can you speak Cantonese?'. When I started helping myself, everyone else started helping me too.

It made me realise, the moment you say something in the language you're learning, you're having a conversation. It doesn't matter if what you're spewing out doesn't make sense, isn't pronounced right or is brief to the point of being a singular word. It has left your mouth and reached their ears, the universal formula for conversation.

很好吃, indeed.