Context and krupuk (蝦餅 xiābǐng)

So the pink, crunchy, vaguely shrimpy things above have several names:

  • Krupuk (indonesian)
  • Shrimp crackers (American English)
  • Prawn crackers (Australian/British English)
  • 蝦餅 xiābǐng

Aussie L and I refer to them as 蝦餅 xiābǐng because we’ve been eating quite a bit of Indonesian food here in Taipei, at a place called Borneo.  Tonight the owner put a bowl of 蝦餅 xiābǐng in front of us, and I immediately said “蝦餅 xiābǐng.”  Or maybe I was saying it in 4th tone instead of 1st.

The point is, Aussie L watched me acquire that word.  He asked how to say it in Chinese, the owner said it.  We both repeated it and talked about the different ways we refer to it, and then we crunched into them.  And now, when a bowl of it is put down in front of me, I can name them in Chinese.

I didn’t study the word; it wasn’t on a list.  I didn’t memorize it.  If someone had given me a test on that word, with the question “how do you say shrimp cracker,” I tell you right now I would have failed it.

But when the bowl was in front of me, I could name them immediately.  And now that I’ve thought about it a little, I’m pretty confident I own that Chinese word for life.

Aussie L had been asking me, what is your method, JP, how do you study, what do you mean you don’t memorize?

Before, I think my answers came across as evasive, or unbelievable, but now my answer is this:  蝦餅 xiābǐng.  My brain holds on to things that we learn in the wild; and my brain does it because everybody’s brain does it… it’s called language acquisition, and we all learned our first languages that way.

It seems improvised, haphazard, out of control, non-systematic.  People will say you can’t learn a whole second language that way… or they’ll say that’s not an efficient way to learn a language.

Here’s what I want to know:  how can people think they can improve on the language instinct?  It makes native speakers, for pete’s sake!  Is zero to native in 5 years not fast enough for you?

You know, I have a conversation class every morning at 9:30.  My teacher writes down words I don’t know in Chinese; later I look them up and list them here.  I don’t study them; I look at them and then imagine when and how I’m going to use them.  For the rest of the day I make an effort to use those words in a conversation, but I don’t always get to them.  There’s a lot of them, and some of them are pretty esoteric.

Sometimes I get really useful, really common words, and sometimes… I forget them.  So I ask the right questions and get reminded of what those words sound like and look like and I guess I’ll try again tomorrow.

I do really want to be done with learning Chinese, I’d love to say I’m done, boom, I know Chinese.  But I don’t feel like I need to race with a five year old, or with an Irish polyglot.  I’m not sure why people have language deadlines.  I know that I speak Spanish, but I still  feel like I’m learning something new every time I speak Spanish.

I think the difference is that I’ve reached a point in Spanish where, even though I don’t know everything, I’m at a level where the learning takes care of itself.  I don’t have to consciously think about learning, I just pick up new things, the same way I pick up new slang or new terminology in English.  If I can get to that point in Chinese, I’ll be laughing.

Right now, I’m still at a point where conversations are incomplete, I can’t completely express myself, and sometimes it’s awkward.  But I feel like I’ll get there.

The thing about learning in context, the way I learned 蝦餅 xiābǐng, is that it is a little haphazard; I have to wait for it to happen to me, I’m not really in control.  I can’t throw money at it; I can’t put my nose to the grindstone and make it happen by force of will.

But on the other hand, learning in context, the way I learned 蝦餅 xiābǐng, was instant, effortless, and permanent.

  • 訪問 fǎngwèn: to visit; call on; to interview
  • 預訪 yùfǎng: pre-interview (I.e., for a talk show guest)
  • 簡訊 jiǎnxùn: text message from a cell phone
  • 爆漿雞蛋糕 bàojiāngjīdàngāo: Jelly-filled mini cake
  • 深山 shēnshān: remote mountains
  • 纏 chán: wind around; wrap around; bother
  • 休火山 xiūhuǒshān: dormant volcano
  • 毒蟲 dúchóng: Drug user, addict, druggie
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3 thoughts on “Context and krupuk (蝦餅 xiābǐng)

  1. “My teacher writes down words I don’t know in Chinese; later I look them up and list them here. I don’t study them; I look at them and then imagine when and how I’m going to use them. For the rest of the day I make an effort to use those words in a conversation….”

    You couldn’t have said that any better. So many people miss the boat on what you really need to do to master a word or phrase….

    ” use those words in a conversation”.

    Once you do that, you own that word for life. I preach exactly the same thing to people and all they do is start talking about studying more. Ni modo.

  2. Pingback: Crushes | you don't have to read v2.0

  3. Pingback: Context, Synonym Strategies, Condoms, and Jam | you don't have to read v2.0

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