A sea change for the Gao family

My husband is Chinese, I'm American, and we met while we were exchange students in Japan so our first common language was Japanese. Really our first common language was a mash-up of Japanese, English and Chinese, combined with a couple of very bad accents. We were hilarious together - when we talked our Japanese friends would get this stunned look on their faces, like they were witnessing two people having a conversation in tongues.

When we moved to California in 1998 he needed to become fluent in English fast so we made English our new common language and it was tough! The conversations were suddenly very basic and slow and we both had to repeat ourselves all the time. But a little bit of pain paid off and now his English is fluent and natural. We're both very proud of it, in the same way that we're proud of the Pergo floor we installed in our living room. Except he did the floor by himself, but anyway you get the picture.

Then in 2005 we moved to Beijing and I needed to become fluent in Chinese fast. For some reason this time it's been even harder to change our common language. Somehow we always slipped back into English no matter how hard we tried to speak Chinese. But last weekend I got so frustrated with my slow progress that I resolved to speak only Chinese to my husband.

I didn't talk much for those first few days.

My husband didn't seem to notice and he continued to use English most of the time. Finally after a week I asked if he'd noticed that I was only speaking Chinese to him and he said no, but God love him, he did say he thought my Chinese was improving.

And thus we have accomplished a sea change in the Gao household. Only Chinese at home from here on out.

If you have a tip for learning foreign languages while living in a foreign country please leave a comment. Thanks in advance for your help!


When I went to US long, long, long time ago, I glued myself to the TV set. I watch everything, but mostly Sesame Street and ABC News. Peter Jennings had the best pronunciation. It was "serious" TV watching. I strained my ears and tried to swallow every sound. It was exhausting.

Posted by Sin-Yaw Wang on November 23, 2006 at 04:21 PM CST #

你好! You can begin from chinese food and cooking. It is interesting and is important part of our life.

Posted by nixon on November 24, 2006 at 01:08 AM CST #

Don't ask why,just say it. Sometimes,learning a language can not always ask "why?". You should just inquire chinese like a child,especially in daily dialogues. For example,try your best to get involved into the chinese surroundings in order to train your linguistic sense and ability as much as you can,or you can talk to some local people in Beijing and you can get a lot of fun while you are learning chinese from them. You know why some women have more sense of learning a language? One of the reasons is they have stronger immediate intuition, different from men's rational thinking. Haha,I'm a intuitionist,so maybe that's why I have more sense of learning foreign language faster than other people.:)

Posted by guest on November 24, 2006 at 01:18 PM CST #

It's me again. :-) I found the topic so interesting I couldn't help but leave some more comments. English-Chinese dictionary may be helpful. I would also grab some official Chinese text books, from elementary to high school depending on your Chinese level -- the reason to do this is because Chinese text books usually include the most frequently used Chinese words. A little bit of practicing written Chinese may help you memorize the charaters better. A way to improve Chinese listening might be to watch Chinese DVDs with cc turned on, I found the ability to rewind and watch over and over again helped tremendously in improving my English listening skills, hopefully the same is true for learning Chinese. Have fun!

Posted by Xiangxiang on November 26, 2006 at 07:10 AM CST #

Those are all excellent ideas - thank you! I'll try them all. - melanie

Posted by melanie gao on November 26, 2006 at 11:51 AM CST #

The following method worked well for me in Japan the first time: total immersion! TV always on at home to get your ear used to listening to the local language, always going to the same small restaurant for dinner and trying to read the menu / speak with the owners, finally, never speak english. My excuse: I'm french and everyone know french people do not speak english :-D Finally (is that the second time I write finally, oh well, Im french you know ) try to have activities with local people. In my case, it's always been team sports like basketball and or volleyball. Nowadays, I'm too slow for basketball, so I play volleyball with a chinese team, and it helps (forces?) me a lot. Some people willa rgue that the best way is to have a local GF/BF, but you never know which one is learning from the other ... Once my level will be high enough in chinese, I will switch to reading kid's book (I bought harry potter in chinese, but it s still hard) and watching dvd with subtitles. Watching DVD is challenging because of the speed whereas reading books is challenging on a vocabulary point of view.

Posted by alex on November 28, 2006 at 03:15 PM CST #

One more suggestion: Try to speak Chinese in your daily work. If you talk with your co-workers in Chinese, he or she will always respond in Chinese. In this way, both your speaking and listening will be improved.

Posted by Forrest on December 01, 2006 at 06:58 AM CST #

Hi Melanie, Found this link from your LinkedIn profile -- didn't even know you were in China. Funny entry. Hope all is well and happy new year! Paul

Posted by Paul Ko on January 07, 2007 at 10:58 PM CST #

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