I picked up a basic Chinese language CD from the library, and started listening to it in the car on the way home. The CD promised to cover basic phrases and words, and I expected to brush up on my Mandarin with some simple, slow conversations. My Chinese is good for buying a train ticket or asking for a menu, but fairly rusty, so I could do with some practice.
In practice, though, it’s pretty hard to follow. A phrase is given in English, and then repeated in Chinese, but the sentences are rarely broken up into components, so even if I can repeat the phrase, I have no idea how to modify it to apply to other situations. Where I can make out individual words, it’s oddly formal sentence constructions, instructing listeners to repeat the Chinese for Please may I ask you for directions to baggage claim? when a good zai nar? would work just as well.
Some of the phrases (May I see the wine list? or Is the gratuity included?) seem amusingly useless for my life as a foreign teacher. Tipping isn’t part of Chinese life, and the closest I ever got to a wine list was insisting that bai jiu, although it could be directly translated to white wine, had more in common with nail polish remover than chardonnay. Possibly each language CD is built to a phrasebook formula, though.
So far, I’m mostly practicing my Chinese by responding to the politely formal sentence prompts with my toneless street Chinese.