I was always quite good at school.
I excelled in maths and physics, biology and chemistry, but always did exceptionally well in English.
When I went to University I also studied French as an aside, foolishly believing at the stage that French was still an important language to learn.
To my credit I picked it up rather quickly, and can still speak it well today.
So you may think that I have an aptitude for languages, given that history, and I would have agreed with you before I was confronted with a language that I can hardly “hear”, and one that simply does not follow any of the language structures that I am familiar with.
I realised that my ability to learn French, as well as some self-taught conversational German, was less to do with my exceptional prowess at absorbing language, and more to do with paralleling similar language structures.
German for instance is effectively the mother tongue of English, and is very similar to English in its structures. French, although less so, is still a related language with similar sounds and language rules.
Chinese Mandarin however is a completely different beast. Although I have become very familiar with so many words, given that I hear them every single day, I am still at a loss when I try and repeat these words.
Even my son laughs at me when he hears my Chinese.
“No daddy” he laughs. “It doesn’t sound like that at all.”
The problem is not simply in the pronunciation of course. It starts off in the hearing, and there are so many nuances in the Chinese language, that once you get to a particular age, you will forever struggle to hear.
So I struggle, although I wish it wasn’t so.
If only I could learn Chinese, I sometimes think, it would open up an incredible new world for me, one where I would directly engage with so many people that I am surrounded by, people that otherwise are off limits to me because of the language barrier.