September 26, 2022
DISASTER STRUCK THIS morning, when I discovered I’d fallen off the top ten of the Duolingo Mandarin leaderboard. Over the two years of the pandemic, I, like many others, took to watching dramas—in my own case, mainland Chinese dramas—and that led me to learn Mandarin online.
This was fun, until I downloaded the Duolingo app last month; using the app, I found it was much easier to earn the points that would get me onto the leaderboard. Unfortunately, it was equally easy for anyone else with the app to do the same, so the danger of getting yeeted off the top of the league was very real.
So the moment I awoke, I did a quick 15 minutes of the high-speed, rote-learned lessons I have done over and over for the last 20 months, and climbed back part of the way. Still not enough.
The trouble had begun the day before; I’d been in the middle of a lesson when the leaderboard changed for the week. Usually, I’d quit by late morning on Sunday, and take time off until Tuesday afternoon, when my first lesson would put me in among other slackers.
Picture my dismay when I saw little green dots against the name of every person on the leaderboard with the app, all of them online and grimly racking up points. I spent more of my Sunday than I wanted to trying to stay out of the demotion zone.
Now, though, I wasn’t in a bad position. Not great, but survivable. I swore I’d never do a lesson at 3.30 p.m. IST on a Sunday ever again.
Next, I logged into my conversation class. As with most such ‘international’ online classes, nearly everyone in it is from the U.S. This one, hosted by a Duolingo friend, has mostly English-speaking learners with perhaps intermediate language skills in Mandarin. One or two people are Southeast Asian; one Chinese boy joined the class to practice his English, and once or twice asked—a little hopelessly, as if he’d been shot down before—if he could just speak in Chinese.
Today’s conversation topics were: a favourite memory from childhood; why one loves a place one visits often; a movie one would recommend. I enjoyed myself hugely, because finding that one (free) conversation class that gives everyone a chance to speak extemporaneously—that tests one’s vocabulary, and one’s ability to listen and comprehend—is truly rare.
Look at the free up there: that’s the problem with a lot of what’s available. Even the Duolingo classes—once entirely free, now variably priced—that work for my time zone and wallet are either too few, or too easy for my skill level now. When the exchange rate was kinder on my pocket, I signed up to iTalki and found a couple of great teachers, but now I ration those paid classes out to maybe one a month.
When the morning had finally begun, I stepped out for a bit, at my mother’s urging, to remind myself that there’s a living and growing world outside. I even took a few photos of flowers, to prove to friends online that I’d really seen them. The names of flowers in Mandarin didn’t occupy my mind as much as you’d expect.
Recently, I found a study partner in another friend from Duolingo whom I’ll call Elle—an Indian living in the U.S., a fellow C-drama enthusiast, and one whose approach to acquiring Chinese is, like mine, magpie-like.
When I say ‘study’…
In our first session, we chatted about all the dramas we’d watched, intended to watch, and would watch again at some point. Our current favourites are the dramas Being A Hero, and Cang Lan Jue, and the programme Street Dance of China S5. But in between the gossip, conducted as far as possible in Chinese, we listen to podcasts and discuss vocabulary and knotty grammatical problems. Sometimes we give each other homework; always, when we mail, we try to do it in Chinese. Our tastes differ somewhat, but our shared enthusiasms give direction to our sessions.
When we listened to a podcast on elementary schooling in China, I realised that the boy who does these podcasts is approximately the same age as my son. Elle was enchanted at the thought of having a 15-minute eye exercise class during the school day. We tried to figure out how to say ‘pledge’ or ‘school assembly’ in Mandarin—features of a regular Indian school education, for those of a certain vintage.
(And we never did figure it out; sometimes a dictionary search throws up a result that does not fit the context. I made a note to ask my iTalki teacher during my next lesson.)
After we were booted out of the (free) Zoom session, we quickly logged back in to plan our next session. We decided to watch the 95-episode 2010 drama Three Kingdoms together towards the end of the year.
It was past 10 p.m. my time when we were done. Even now, entire days go by like this now: all virtual interactions, apart from when I’m with my immediate family.
I’ve been trying to get myself off devices so that I can get to sleep earlier, but that wouldn’t work tonight. Though I’d put away my phone, my head was still buzzing with words as I continued our conversation in Mandarin, in my head.
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