Sometimes language learning happens when you least expect it — like while walking out the door of a gym after a late evening workout.
Last night I stopped at the front desk of the gym to try to find out if the gym would be open today. The reason that was even open to question is the fact that today is a holiday in China — Qing Ming Jie or Grave Sweeping Festival.
Even though this has meant a long weekend in China (Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday off), the gym was open on Monday. I wasn't sure it would be today.
So, with the question 'will you be closed tomorrow' embedded in my brain, I said the following in Chinese:
ni mingtian guanbi ma? (will you be closed tomorrow?)
Without missing a beat, the gal behind the desk replied:
mingtian xiuxi. (we are resting tomorrow).
Instantly I realized that I had commited one of the most fundamental errors in language learning — simply translating into the second language what I would say in my native language in a given situation, rather than learning to say what is supposed to be said in that situation.
I wanted to know if the gym was closed,so I just used Chinese to ask that question. But in this situation, Chinese don't necessarily emphasize open/closed, but more commonly use the word "rest" to indicate they are taking a holiday.
I should have just said, ni mingtian xiuxi ma? (will you rest tomorrow)?
I had the chance to get it right when I got home and read a text message (in Chinese) from my housekeeper, asking if she should come to work today.
Mingtian xiuxi ba, I replied. "Have a rest tomorrow."