A Friend’s Personal Story
A friend and I were chatting about some great activities to practice Mandarin. Right now, she’s living in a college town outside of Chicago in Illinois with her sister. Both are ABT, so they speak Chinese—but they’ve grown a bit rusty not having regular opportunities to practice.
After brainstorming for a bit, she decided to take a trip to her local grocery store with her sister. While they shopped, they only spoke Mandarin. They would point out and say the names of food. I imagine that although they planned ahead about what they wanted to buy, they spent some time leisurely walking through the store talking about food, recipes, and other grocery related topics. All-in-all it was a great experience for her—both delicious and productive.
Why My Friend Is Awesome
There are a lot of things that my friend did that were absolutely brilliant:
- She made grocery shopping a social outing and went with another Chinese speaker. When she didn’t know a word, she was able to piggy back off of her sister’s knowledge. She also got to teach a few words herself.
- She used what was around her. They weren’t just sitting at home talking about food out of context. They were exploring the store talking about the types of food they actually liked to eat.
- She planned ahead, but wasn’t obsessive about it. They were spontaneous about their shopping trip, and at the end she walked away thinking, “Oh, these are the words I need to look up later.” That’s a lot more productive than sitting at home making a huge list of vocabulary before you even walk out the door.
Alternatives and Suggestions
Here are some other things that you can do if you want to make a grocery shopping trip of your own.
Shop at an Asian Market: If you live in a large metropolitan city, there’s probably a store that specializes in Asian food. Pick one that targets a Chinese speaking market. On the West Coast, I’d recommend going to a large chain like 99 Ranch Market. (I miss that store.) In Chicago, there are a few shops in new Chinatown (on Broadway and Argyle) and in old Chinatown (on Cermak). But one other option might be the pan-Asian super store H-Mart in Naperville and in Niles. I haven’t been to the one in the Chicago-land, but if it’s like the one in Irvine, it should be a fun place to shop.
Make a grocery list or find a recipe before you head out. Give yourself plenty of time to explore the grocery store, but be on a mission to learn specific words and find specific items. Think about the things on your list in the context of the other things on the shelves.
Take pictures. Although it might be more polite to wait until you’re out of the store, take pictures of the food items that you have to work a bit harder to remember. If you use word cards, use those pictures (instead of the words in English) on the other side. That way you’re associating the image with the word in Chinese (this will help you to visualize and divorce the Chinese word from the English word).
Be observant. If you go with a friend, have that person test you on how much you know. If you go by yourself, keep track of which words pop into your head easily and which you struggle with. For example: Are you better at produce than dairy?
Create a (non-food related) context. Maybe you’re really good at most of the food words, but can you diagram everything in the store. Think of other aspects of the experience: the store clerks, shopping carts, cashiers, aisles, signposts, pharmacies, how food is arranged on the shelves, and noting what types of things are next to other types of things.
Benefits to Grocery Shopping
You get to build a lot of very practical vocabulary. If you ever live in a Chinese speaking country, you’ll have to do it sometime. Why not start practicing now?