My brain hurts. Tired and straying I try to maintain my focus. It takes all my concentration to sit still and listen, hoping I can process and understand most of the conversation on hand at the table around me.
But sometimes, yes – sometimes I succumb to the exhaustion of translating in my mind on the fly and either stare into space or look hopefully at my husband willing him to translate for me. I don’t mean to be rude; I really, really WANT to understand on my own. It’s just my concentration wavers, my brain tired from processing, in a situation I have come to think of as language exhaustion.
I live in a country where my mother tongue is not frequently spoken. It isn’t that English isn’t spoken in Hong Kong – it is, however the language of choice is Cantonese. We have a lot of Cantonese speaking friends we socialise with. Most of our TV channels are Cantonese with Chinese subtitles. Almost all the radio stations broadcast in Cantonese or Mandarin. And I’m fine with that – truly I am – it is part of the Hong Kong identity and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s just that sometimes my brain simply can’t handle the Cantonese overload.
I try to speak Cantonese as much as I can (or am brave enough to) with everyone. When they respond I have to concentrate as hard as I can to understand enough for my brain to reconstruct what people say to me back into English – my thinking language. Identifying the words, rearranging the sentence structure and then hopefully comprehending what is being said correctly … and then (again hopefully) re-constructing an appropriate response with the correct words in the correct structure to reply back and be understood.
I’m a 486 in a 5GHz 8-core world – my processing time is frustratingly slow for both those talking to me and myself – I don’t react and respond fast enough – which is why sometimes, just sometimes, I crash into the blue screen of death.
Learning a tonal language with no common references at all in your native tongue is decidedly difficult … especially when you are REALLY old like me. The key word here is tonal. For those of you who thought the key word was OLD … SHAME ON YOU! You’ll be old one day too ya know!
Aside from phonetic construction Cantonese has nine distinct tones for each ‘sound’. NINE! Say the right phonetic sound with the wrong tone and ooooooh boy – one can really put their mouth in it! It’s a huge fear of mine and one reason I actually don’t speak MORE Cantonese than I understand.
Similarly, someone can say a word in Cantonese and if I have missed the context or don’t understand the surrounding words or I’ve forgotten/confused my tones (which my Western ears do frequently) the sentence becomes lost on me.
For example: the sound gau…
-Did you just say dog? or nine? or old? or enough? or a long time? (all are valid dependent on the tone)
My brain simply needs downtime every now and then. It needs to switch off the language conversion and chill in mind-numbing silence to escape the constant sub-conscious processing. My brain can’t help but try to translate when I hear Cantonese and when it starts to tire I tend to drift. Then I realise I am drifting and pull myself back to concentrating and feel guilty, and exhausted, and deal with the occasional headache. I slack off when I should be better at this – C’mon 40 year old brain!
Languages are not my forte unless they involve coding on a computer or creating analytical algorithms. Regardless, I am determined to persevere and try to conquer as much of the spoken Cantonese language as I can.
Now writing Chinese … that might take me a whole lot longer …