After six years of studying Chinese, one thing that surprises me most is how atrociously bad at it I can be sometimes.
I just assumed that after all that time, I would be able to understand a simple children’s cartoon like 喜羊羊与灰太狼 (Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf) with ease. Well, I can—most of the time. Then there are the days where I can’t understand a single word of it. I stare at the screen and focus intensely on the dialogue, but the sounds wash over me like a completely unfamiliar language. But when I turn on the subtitles, I see that I do know the words. I just can’t connect them to the sounds I’m hearing no matter how hard I try.
This frustrates me to no end. I start to wonder why I have sunk thousands of hours into learning Chinese, but still can’t understand a show aimed at children. I wonder if maybe I’m just dumb. Surely someone else could have achieved better results with the same amount of time and effort. Then I put away the Chinese for the day.
The next day, I come back and load the same video. Lo and behold, I can understand it now. Maybe not perfectly, but a whole lot better than before.
The other side of the coin is the days when it all seems effortless. I can communicate eloquently and fluidly, and I find myself using phrases I wasn’t even aware that I knew. It feels like I have made it to the end of the road and I finally “know” Chinese.
I have no idea why this variability happens, but it’s common enough that I have noticed the pattern.
If you find yourself having a bad day, don’t give up!
Alternatively, if you find yourself having an amazing day, don’t start to expect that every day.
Your actual abilities are the average of your good and bad days. Just know that if you continue to work at it, your overall level will continue to improve.