Class Notes

Chinese Starter Course

By Paula Marantz Cohen | December 6, 2011


I recently began studying Chinese. (I originally wrote “learning Chinese,” but this seems a bit presumptuous, at least at this point.) It isn’t clear how much Chinese I am learning, though it is clear that I am learning something. The process, I should add, is curiously delightful, especially for someone of my age with no particular linguistic facility.

I do speak French, the result of growing up in a rabidly Francophilic family (see my earlier column on my mother, who was a high school French teacher), but all other efforts at language learning on my part have been unsuccessful. Starting at around the age of 6 or 7, I began going to Sunday School, where Hebrew was lackadaisically introduced.  The aim wasn’t even to prepare me for a bar mitzvah—I am not a boy, and the female bat mitzvah hadn’t yet become routine for girls, even of the Reform Jewish persuasion. Hebrew was simply part of this religious school’s curriculum. Some of my classmates, to their credit, became intrigued by the language and went on to pursue it (I know at least one who has settled in Israel and teaches at a university there). But tracing the letters, reciting the prayers by rote, and hearing our teacher continually repeat the words “sheket bevakasha” (be quiet, please) did not inspire me to learn more.

In college I spent a year taking an intensive Russian course that met six days a week in the basement of one of the university’s shabbier buildings. All the Russian instructors were Jewish refugees, with no particular aptitude for teaching. My motivation was to connect with a romantic idea about my own heritage. I ought to learn this language, I thought, because my grandparents came from Russia. But I wonder about my enthusiasm in retrospect. My grandparents had left that country, much as my college Russian teachers had, to escape persecution. Perhaps some ancestral resistance was rearing its head, and, despite the effort involved in getting up before 8 a.m. for my Saturday morning class, I managed to retain nothing from my intensive Russian course beyond the salutations “z-dra-st-vui-tye” and “das-vi-dan-niye.” Ironically, in the case of both Russian and Hebrew, I can read the respective alphabets and thus sound out words, but without a clue about what the words mean.

My impetus for studying Chinese is different. I am intrigued by Chinese culture, but I also had a practical, short-term goal in mind when I began the process: I had already made two trips to China, and I was planning another to complete a documentary film and give a talk at Tsinghua University. I never had the intention of giving the talk in Chinese—I knew I would be speaking to the university’s English Department, and the students are fluent in English—but I wanted to be able to say a few words in the language by way of introduction, to greet my hosts more informally, not to mention order at restaurants, speak to hotel clerks, and ask where the bathroom is. This modest goal is what got me started.

I decided at the outset to ignore the written side of Chinese. I am not inclined to try to decipher, no less trace, those daunting characters. My aim is simply to converse in a rudimentary fashion. To that end, I owe a debt to the method I am using to learn.

My introduction to French in high school relied on the now out-of-date audio-lingual method (ALM), consisting of dialogues, which students memorized and repeated to each other. (If you happen to meet someone of my age who studied French in high school, I assure you that if you recite the opening line of ALM’s Dialogue 2—Dis donc, où est la bibliotheque?—you will immediately get the response: C’est tout droit. Tu y vas tout de suite? Your interlocutor may even go further and recite the next line, with its precocious use of the subjunctive: Il faut que j’aille chercher un livre.)

The ALM method had its drawbacks, but there was something to be said for being able to speak in complete sentences, even if by rote, early on. The Pimsleur approach, which I am using for Chinese, strikes me as assimilating some of the best aspects of the ALM Method. I should note that I chose it purely by chance when I stumbled on a “Get Started” course advertised online for $9.95.

The promotion was banking on the idea that after listening to the six half-hour starter lessons, one a day, I would be willing to slap down $200 for the remainder of Level I Chinese. Things did not proceed precisely as I would have hoped. I did not listen to each tape for a half hour and then move on to the next one as the promotion suggested. Instead, I had to listen to each tape at least three or four times over a period of several days, in some cases, longer, before I progressed to the next lesson. But eventually I did move on, and I kept the $200 set of Level 1 tapes when it arrived.

What kept me going was the feeling of the language emerging out of seemingly chaotic babble. I began to understand its structure and logic—as well as its illogic. It is true that I have had limited success trying to converse with native speakers—the tones in Chinese are notoriously difficult to master, particularly for someone like me, who cannot carry a tune. I cornered an elderly Chinese man in the supermarket the other day, for example, and when I asked him if he spoke Mandarin (or Putonghua—“the common language,” renamed such under Mao), he gave me a quizzical look, then painstakingly corrected my pronunciation, word by word.

But having the language take shape, if not out of my mouth, at least within my imagination, has been a great pleasure. I think, as I study, of those late works of Michelangelo, where the figures seem to be breaking out of the rough marble. I can see now how the beauty of the language complements what I know of Chinese culture, and how its dissonances and difficulties also connect to aspects of that culture.

As with anything that involves learning, when there is a rationale and a practical context for doing it, the process takes on urgency and meaning. We learn better when we can connect what we learn to what we know or want to know. Educators have always understood this, and yet we routinely forget it when asking students to assimilate large chunks of material without finding a link either to their lives now or to the lives they hope to live. This is what is most disturbing about the recent focus on testing: students may learn to pass the test, but like my forays into Hebrew and Russian, they are likely forget what they have learned as soon as the course is over.

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