我们已经学了很久了,你好像没有什么进步。

“We’ve been studying for quite a while now,” one of my iTalki teachers said to me on Tuesday night. “And it seems you’ve made no progress.” Did this bother me?

Not in the slightest. I’m well used to it by now, because it’s been the story of my entire Chinese learning experience since 2007: No progress.

During my first semester, I made almost no progress. Same for second semester. And third. And fourth. Fifth and sixth weren’t any better. If anything, the last two were even worse.

But there is one fact that is undeniable: At the beginning of first semester, I would not have passed the HSK 1. At the beginning of my final semester, I passed the HSK 6 with room to spare. Somehow, in the midst of “no progress,” I managed to make some progress.

This, more than anything else, is why Chinese is so difficult: The progress is imperceptibly slow. Maybe I could say: Exasperatingly imperceptibly slow. It messes with your expectations on how quickly something should happen.

John Pasden wrote an insightful article about this phenomenon: “…[I]t’s ‘hard’ because it’s frustrating. Actual performance does not live up to one’s reasonable expectations for one’s performance…”

As adults who are highly skilled in our native language, we’re used to being able to absorb and master large amounts of material quickly. In learning Chinese, it just doesn’t work that way. It’s easy to work you tail off, then compare today’s situation with yesterday’s situation, and not be able to find any improvement at all.

It’s like rushing to the office in the morning, then deciding to stop for a moment to watch the sun rise. You look for 5 seconds. Then 10 seconds. Then 15 seconds. “Good night, sun, what’s your problem?! Why can’t you just MOVE IT?!”

After a good 30 seconds, you decide this poor lazy sun is just hopeless, and off you go to work.

But, if around lunch time you recall your morning experience and go outside to see if the sun is still stuck at the horizon, you’ll find that it had quietly and  imperceptibly made some progress.

Photo: Camp Ironwood, California © 2005 Elijah Wilcott