This past summer I spent a month of my time, and two months of my salary taking an intensive Chinese course. Why? Because of badminton of course! In my new group no one speaks more than a few words of English and while I can communicate with them, I wanted to pump up my level to where I could easily and fluidly talk to them.
So how did it go? Well, the night I arrived back in Xiamen I hung out with my friends, most of whom are Chinese or Taiwanese and spoke a ton of Chinese. I got compliment after compliment about how much better my Chinese was.
**Puff, puff, ego, ego.**
Then 12 hours later I was back in the gym with my coach and my badminton friends.
“You really studied Chinese everyday?” My coach asked me after a few hours of playing.
“Yeah,” I said. “Have I gotten better?”
“Not really,” he shrugged.
But he’s right. When I’m hanging out with my friends my Chinese is miles better. It’s because when I’m just hanging out and chatting, I can focus entirely on speaking. Learning Chinese has never come easily to me, and speaking is just plain hard. I mean, I’m way better at writing than speaking English and my Chinese is the same way. But at least when I am just hanging out with my friends, I can focus on the language and just talk.
But when I’m training, my mind focuses on the game. Language falls far down the “concentration” list and as a result, my level plummets. When I’m playing I almost block out the other voices. (It’s an easy trick to do once you move to another country. You just zone out on the incoherent babble.) When I’m playing I’m thinking about my form, where to hit the birdie etc. So if someone talks to me directly, I totally miss it. I’m zoned out.
My coach has figured that out so before speaking to me when I’m playing game he shouts out “Xiao Bing!” (my chinese name) to get my attention. I think he probably shouted a lot of stuff to me that I paid no attention to before he figured that trick out.
Also, when someone is telling me something in a game, I actually have to stop playing and look at them and concentrate on what they are saying. Like, with the native speakers, they kinda keep playing, or walk and get ready in serving position while talking. But for me I have to stop everything, stand next to them and focus on what the speaker is saying, delaying the game and making the other team wait for me.
Then there is the shouted out advice, such as “too slow,” “too fast,” “higher,” etc. When someone just shouts out “higher,” I can’t just nod and keep playing. I have to stop and be like “what should be higher? The birdie? My racket? my hand?” Although I’m not sure if this is more a language thing or a lack of understanding the theory, but I hate when someone just tells out some ambiguous phrase because I don’t know what they mean exactly.
My coach has always been a bit harsh on my Chinese level, yet it makes me like him more. In China, all you need to say is a simple “thank you,” and people flip out totally besides themselves trying to compliment you on your language ability. But my coach has never been like that. He’s kinda the opposite. He just assumes I’ll understand everything and when I don’t he kinda makes fun of me.
Sometimes he checks on me to see how much I understand. The other night we stopped a game and he told me to play a certain technique where I force my opponent to hit the birdie how I want to. I listened and nodded and the next point did what he told me.
“Did you understand what I told you?” he asked after.
“Yeah, I just did it, didn’t I?!” I replied a bit petulant.
“Just checking it wasn’t coincidental,” he laughed.
I think I’m also endlessly entertaining to my badminton group. In the chat group they like to send some archaic Chinese poem or tongue twister and ask me if I understand it. Half of the group admits to not knowing what it means, yet its funnier for them if the dumb laowai (foreigner) doesn’t get it.
I’ve also noticed my level fluctuate based on what I do in my life. After traveling I spent everyday at the badminton courts for 5-7 hours. I didn’t see other people and I didn’t speak English face-to-face with anyone for days (I only spoke English 4 times in an almost 3 week period.) At first, it was rough. Not only was I suddenly thrust into badminton training, I was thrust into the mental challenge of not being able to communicate effortlessly. The first week I ended every night with a headache, both from so much playing and so much focusing on language.
But the more I got into it, the easier it got. With my mind only in one mode “chinese,” it was actually easier and more fluid to just talk. After about 7 days the headaches stopped. Now that the semester has started, and my foreign friends have come back, I find it harder to switch between languages in the day, and I noticed my level of understanding goes down on days I teach class. (Although when I miss a shot, the word “shit,” pops out of my mouth without me even thinking and some of my teammates who thinks it’s funny decided to say it too. So I’m slightly influencing them a little with my English.)
So training in another language just adds another level of challenge to the whole thing. Aside from my (lack of) speed, my game theory is my biggest problem. I can play against someone weaker than me, and still lose, just because my strategy is poor. And the language is a real barrier slowing me down my learning in this department. I read articles in English, and watch English videos, but they don’t quite match the “in game” strategy tips everyone gives me. Also, Chinese technique is better that most western techniques and I don’t want to learn an inferior way. It’s just something I will have to work.
Could I improve more if I was trained in English? In some aspects, like tactics I think so, yeah. But then again I’m getting to learn badminton in China, where the average hobbyist is almost at a professional level. So I think the level of players that surrounds me and training techniques is much more important than the language. So I will continue to deal with it. Or as I’d say in Chinese 忍一忍