Chinese Lessons

Trip Start Jun 15, 2007
Trip End Jun 24, 2007

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Flag of China  ,
Friday, June 22, 2007

Today, we observed day four of the language immersion class for the students from Howard Community College. Chinese is such a beautiful language to hear with a sing-song quality to it because of the tones. But Chinese is a difficult language because of those tones and the characters. Also, some of the vowel and consonant sounds are not easy because we are not used to making them in English. For example "x" sounds like "sh" but as you say "sh" your lips should be making a slight smile and the tip of your tongue should be pointing up.
So, many students of Chinese begin with incredible trepidation and then get easily frustrated. (I see that happening with the Howard students.) Patience with oneself is the key and I am speaking from experience. I lost patience and gave up too easily 10 years ago during the middle of my stay. In the last month of my year in China, I finally found a tutor who I clicked with, but for me it was too little too late. My wife learned much more and we were able to leave Shijiazhuang and travel on our own to other cities because of her skill with Chinese.
As an aside (or soapbox), learning a language as an adult is the wrong age. Why don't public schools in the U.S. start formalized training of a second language with kindergarten? We shouldn't be debating whether to make English the official language, but pushing for bilingual education at an early age like what's done in China and Europe.
However, I know learning Chinese as an adult can be done. With the right teacher (like a Carolyn Ho), you could learn a lot more. Once you start to learn the tones and characters, there is a reward in that the grammar is very easy (unlike English). I've known several waiguoren (foreigners) who have become fluent in speaking and writing Chinese as adults. Peter Hessler, who I don't know personally, came to China in the later 1990s to teach English at a rural college. In two years time he became fluent. He ended up living in China for much of the next ten years working as a foreign correspondent. In that time he published two books based on his experiences. River Town focuses on his teaching years and Oracle Bones examines China at the turn of the twenty-first century as it pushes to modernize and globalize its economy. The title of Oracle Bones is in reference to the oldest version (several thousand years ago) of written characters on animal bones. We have recommended both books to the Howard students and they are good reads for anybody with an interest in modern China. Hessler's experiences have been discussed much in the past week by Carolyn, Ben and myself as we compare his findings to what we see in Suzhou and Wuxi. Carolyn has even talked about bringing Hessler to Cy-Fair as a guest speaker.
During the lesson today, Ian, one of the students, asked a great question -- should he just learn the pinyin (written romanized alphabet version of Chinese) and not the characters? In China you see pinyin on some signs and storefronts, but the problem is most Chinese only know the characters not the pinyin. In the 1950s Chairman Mao made a push to abandon the characters and switch to pinyin. But this was one program, in which Mao did not get his way. Many Chinese then and now feel the written language is at the heart of being Chinese because it is so intertwined with their culture and history. Even though I am a weiguoren, I would agree whole heartedly with this sentiment. Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor, unified China more than 2,000 years ago through the written characters. So the answer to Ian's question is he must learn the characters in order to be fluent in Chinese. He is also learning the pinyin because that is the best way to teach someone to speak and understand Chinese. You learn to speak and understand the oral before you tackle the written characters.
There are many dialects in China today and it's to the extent where sometimes a person from one city cannot understand somebody else from a neighboring city when they are conversing in their respective dialects. But people across China use the same character based writing system so they can understand each other on paper. (Note: in Suzhou, there is a dialect. But many people also seem to speak Putonghua (Mandarin), the Beijing dialect. Putonghua is the spoken language used on national news and other TV programs and is the dialect being taught to the Howard students.
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