Language learning continues

Like many/most of the volunteers, I’ve been finding it harder to sustain Chinese learning since I’ve been at site, compared with how it was over the summer. I never realized how excellent our intensive language classes were until getting out into the “real world” of language learning. First, it’s very difficult to motivate oneself to have the kind of discipline to study on one’s own compared to how it was when we were in our small, fast-moving classes for four hours per day. Second, even when one does find a Chinese tutor or class, it’s hard to reconcile Chinese teaching and learning styles with American expectations.

When I first got to site, I found out that a Chinese class would be organized for the foreign teachers because there are so many at my school. But when I went on the first day and we were learning “ni hao” I decided it wasn’t a productive use of my time, at least not then. I asked our waiban (foreign affairs office) whether there was a higher level Chinese class I could join—since there are as many as a couple hundred foreign students at the school, I felt this shouldn’t have been difficult. But no. During training the emphasis was solely on oral Chinese, and we learned Pinyin, the system of writing Chinese words in the Latin alphabet, is used instead of characters. This is not unreasonable—it makes sense to teach us as much as they can right away so that we can survive at site orally, and we can always learn characters later.

But this kind of thing is anathema to a teacher of Chinese. They take great pride in their writing system, and believe that it should not be divorced from oral language. (This also plays into how they learn English—much emphasis on reading and writing and grammar and structure, and much less emphasis on real oral proficiency or being able to speak with a native speaker, or the like). So it was impossible for me to take, say, an intermediate-level speaking/listening class and a beginning-level reading/writing class. So it was back to the drawing board.

Finally, I found two tutors whom I’ve been working with for the last few weeks—one is a student, who is from the north so she speaks standard Mandarin, instead of the local dialect that most students around her speak. I also have a grad student who specializes in teaching Chinese working with me. This is working out OK, although it’s still a struggle to find a balance between their Chinese teaching style (they teach, I listen/absorb, I go home and memorize vocabulary, and repeat) and my American learning style. I’ve also discovered, though, that the foreign teachers’ Chinese class is now proficient enough that I feel like I can get something out of going. So returning to that classroom setting, with friends, has been fun.

But I’ve also been studying on my own. I’m sorry to say that I probably speak Chinese much less than I should—my students and I speak English exclusively, my American friends and I speak English exclusively, and although I do speak a little Chinese on the street every day (things like, “stop the bus,” or, “I would like the kung pao chicken, how much does it cost?”), I feel guilty for not forcing myself to engage in the kind of sustained language situations that I know I should. But where I do feel like I’m succeeding, in terms of self-study, is in starting to learn to read.

Although I don’t believe that the Chinese point of view, that the oral and written languages should never be separated for language learning, is a good one, I do see some of the point. Once you start to learn the characters, you can make all kinds of connections between words, ideas, and Chinese culture that you can’t using just Pinyin.

During training we learned the word for bicycle, zixingche. I memorized the word and thought little of it. Just now, when studying characters, did I realize that the three characters that make up that word literally translate as self-move-vehicle, or some such.自行车. Of course! There have been lots of little examples like this, where I suddenly realize how a word is  made up. Oh, the common word yidanr, 一点儿, a little, which I use all the time literally means yi, one, plus dian, a drop/dot/little, and a suffix, –er. And sure, desk should be shuzhouzi, 书桌子, book-table. If you’re the kind of learner who is more visual, or who needs to make connections to previous knowledge like that, learning hanzi (the character system) can make it a lot clearer, even if it is burdensome to memorize the 3000 characters you need to be able to read a newspaper…

The number of characters that exist in Chinese is pretty set. So if you need to make up a new word, you pretty much have to do it from existing characters.  So what if there’s a new invention? Computers? Diannao, electric-brain, of course. Website? Wangzhan, or net-stop.

Or, let’s say you want to create a Chinese name for your existing American product. Coca Cola, say. Well, let’s break that down into syllables, and pick characters that sound a bit like the original word. (Each character is usually a syllable, not a whole word, necessarily, as is sometimes thought.) But wait! There also needs to be positive connotations. Thus we end up with kekoukele, 可口可乐, literally can-mouth-can-happy, which means something like delicious and joyful. (That’s can as in “able to,” not as in the cylindrical object in which the beverage is sold, just so’s we’re clear.) Everyone’s happy. Business exist that can help companies create Chinese names that make sense and have these kinds of positive connotations. (I think this example was specifically profiled in the WSJ or some such some time ago, but I can’t be bothered to find a link.)

In theory, I can recognize/read about 150 characters now, and after struggles with one of my tutors over the value of writing, I have finally impressed upon her that I do not need to know how to do the art that is writing Chinese (with very specific rules about stroke order, etc), since if I can recognize characters then I can type anything I want to on my computer or phone. Several of my friends are learning to read but not write as well, and last weekend in Chengdu, one of the most fun moments was with My Girls in our hostel room playing Hanzi Charades, acting out the shapes of characters for the others to guess. Some, like da, 大, big, are easy. Other attempts, like xuesheng, 学生, student, were more difficult. We’re thinking this game could become the latest language-learning craze at winter training….

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