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How I View Chinese Learning (A US Chinese learner)
Written by cathy_rain
Many teachers do not realize the impact they have on their students’ lives as teaching, especially in the case of the United States, is a profession too often looked down upon and underappreciated. I would imagine that Professor Peter Lorge, whose intro to Chinese history course I took my freshman year at Brown, has no idea just how much he change the course of my life by simply teaching. Whenever someone asks me, “Why did you want to learn Chinese?” (a question I probably get more than most people) I easily reply, “I took a really great class on Chinese history freshman year and so I decided to learn the language.”

That in fact is the reason why I am in Beijing and the beginning of my journey that took me down a path only two years ago, I would have never even conceived. Perhaps if I had taken an influential German history course or a class on Russian culture, things would have been different. I could be in a different part of the world right now with a completely different world view. Yet it was vast history and rich culture of the Middle Kingdom that first sparked my interest and so I took on the seemingly daunting task of learning Chinese.

My sophomore year I signed up for a two-semester, full year course of Beginner’s Mandarin and whenever the usual “What classes are you taking this semester?” inquiry would arise, I was often met with one of either two responses when I added the inevitable, “…oh yeah, and Chinese.” One was admiration, taking a language like Chinese was considered exotic and brave, as if I’d just told them I was going to explore uninhabited regions of the Earth. But in some ways, it was like that, at least more me. Unlike the other foreign languages I had taken before, Chinese would be the most “foreign” to me, especially as I am a Nigerian and the ties between Africa and China are few and far between. Which brings me to the second reaction—confusion.


That was something that was often asked after I told people that I was studying Chinese.

“Why not?”, I would reply.

“I heard it’s really hard.”

Hmm, that is a good point, I would think to myself.

In the 1950s, pinyin, the Romanization system used for Chinese characters, was introduced to someday replace hanzi, the ideographical system of reading and writing Chinese. Pinyin is easier, true, but it’s not Chinese. Characters and the idea of having to learn a completely different form of writing and spelling was by far the most daunting task in my mind when I first started learning Chinese (little did I know that it would be tones that would soon become the bane of my existence). I had never encountered a language that did not use the Roman alphabet, even my native tongue of Igbo, a sub-Saharan Nilotic language used some form of Romanized letters and symbols. It is a known fact that you must be able to recognize at least 5,000 characters to read the newspaper. After our second week of Chinese, we had just managed to master how to both write and say “Ni hao”. The idea of some day being able to speak the language was at that point impossible.

The Chinese language department at Brown has some of the best Chinese teachers in America from the mainland. Their specialty is to doggedly harass and grind their students into robotic 4-tonal automatons. Rote memorization is the basis for learning Chinese and after having experienced similar teaching styles in Nigeria, I soon learned I had a knack for the language. This didn’t stop Hu Laoshi from making me pronounce the word for “to go” (qu4) repeatedly for minutes in front of the whole class until I said it perfectly. (Qu will always be the thorn in my side and until this day, I can never say it right on the first try.) Degradation and persistence seemed to be an effective combination for learning Chinese and by the time I came to China to study, I could hold conversations with regular “non-foreignized” Chinese people about anything from American movie stars to the works of Lu Xun. Learning Chinese in China for 8 months did more for me than the two years I took it at Brown. Whereas Brown taught me how to speak Chinese, China taught me how to prattle off in Chinese and argue about prices and my cell phone warranty. I don’t feel comfortable with a language until I can fight using it.



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