Getting beyond "ni hao"

Charles Rycroft (United Nations International Children's Fund-Beijing) 2006-05-12 10:26:32


    BEIJING, May 12 -- Most of us come to China with high motivation to learn the country's language in its ha-ha "simplified" form and perhaps many fail. The one thing all Chinese learning methods indeed seem to have in common is that, for the vast majority of initially high ly motivated foreigners, they do not work.

    There are exceptions, of course, such as those who arrive with degrees in Chinese, have spent years living in a remote Chinese village or who are given a one or even two-year course by their far-sighted employers before they even get off the plane.

    For the rest of us, certain patterns emerge. We all know the highly-motivated new arrivals who negotiate an intensive learning package with their employer, who then makes progressively heavy demands on them "to get started on their real job."

    The eight-hours-a-day quickly becomes four and then as their job picks up speed they enter the downwards spiral of having to cancel classes. Combine this with a feeling of making very slow progress and you have quickly lost that high-motivation-and-positive feedback required for progress with any human endeavour.

    When it comes to feedback, many of us will know that terrible sinking feeling as we realize that the Chinese our teacher appears or affects to understand is not always understood by others.

    Worse is when such moments occur precisely when we are gleefully showing-off our Chinese to visiting families and friends. We may then find ourselves desperately maintaining face with a "he is not from Beijing, very possibly from Sichuan by his accent." After all, why blow it all now when we have been doing so really well with the instructions to the taxi-driver!

    These drop-outs will inevitably pick up a few words and phrases but will not have got as far as mastering Chinese tones, let alone studying Chinese grammar, so that their isolated words and phrases stay just that.

    Ways of learning

    Dig a little deeper and you may also find their intensive group classes which looked like such good value (to the employer) were often little more than mass rote learning exercises. This time could have been spent more productively in the language laboratory their school did not have.

    One-on-one lessons seem to fare a little better, and for the same reasons of the new job picking-up pace, the postponing and cancelling of lessons and that frustrating feeling of making little headway. We run into the wall of being unable to get very far beyond the "ni hao."

    Indeed, it's only because that phrase is a universal greeting that makes it possible for our Chinese colleagues to consistently understand what we may have been pronouncing incorrectly for years. Some of us discover late in the game that in order to continue making progress, we should have taken the hard but high road of studying Chinese characters instead of opting for pinyin (phonetic system for Chinese characters).

    Indeed, what has become frequently heard mantras for our failure is blaming the bad advice we were given (or was it good advice we rejected?) plus the methods used to teach Chinese.

    Language experts (never actually cited, of course) agree that Chinese methods are more suited to learning how to write (meaning to reproduce strokes in the correct form and order) rather than learning how to speak the language, which anyway tends to be true of language learning methods everywhere.

    But we foreigners are nothing but creative people who have developed not only many different excuses but also ways of failing.

    My own preference was to become the assiduous compiler and memorizer of impressive-looking word lists which we carry everywhere with us.

    Because we never learn the grammar, nor listen attentively enough to develop confidence with our actual speaking of Chinese, we might as well be memorizing telephone directories, which of course has additionally futile connotations in the Middle Kingdom.

    Then there's the "horizontal learner" who mimics their Chinese partner, repeating Chinese phrases perfectly. Still, they barely learn to mimic a few choice phrases in Beijing dialect. This mimicry, while a source of amusement and bemusement to Beijing taxi drivers, can also become an endless linguistic plateau they will never rise above.

    The best advised of foreigners place their faith in audio gizmos, which they listen to on their bikes and in their fitness clubs, proudly explaining how they are studying Chinese. Others encounter irresistibly packaged e-learning courses while out buying their DVDs or purchase useful-looking pocket translators.

    But after the initial novelty is over, they are pretty soon back to surfing the Net, listening to music on their iPods and leaving their translators buried deep in their brief-cases.

    And so it goes.

    We, the longer-term residents, bravely soldier on by switching between different but seemingly equally futile methods of learning Chinese, meanwhile finding Da Shan (Mark Rowswell, a Canadian who can speak perfect Chinese and has been a popular performer on China's television) and his ilk increasingly irritating.

    We go to meetings where for years we have been opening our speeches by explaining in broken Chinese why we will not be speaking the language every other speaker will be using that day. We may even enter denial by wilfully understating the time we have spent in China.

    Maybe the only way we can begin to get back on the road of linguistic fulfilment is therefore through a "Language Failures Anonymous" session, at which I promise to be the very first to get up and announce in excellent English:

    "My name is Charles, and I've been in China seven years "?

    (Source: China Daily)