'Learning Chinese' is an oxymoron
By Jeff Walsh(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-06-23 07:10
What do the terms "jumbo shrimp," "mournful optimist" and a "deafening silence" have in common? They are all oxymorons.
Dictionary.com defines an
oxymoron as two or more contradictory or incongruous terms combined. Oxymoron
comes from two contradictory Greek words "oxus"
meaning "sharp" and "moros"
meaning "dull." For me, an English teacher in Changchun of Northeast
Having little or no prior knowledge of Chinese before arriving on the Chinese mainland, I planned to enrol in some sort of crash course covering the basics of conversational Chinese.
Thumbing through "China Expat" magazine, I ran across all kinds of glossy ads making glittering promises: "Learn Chinese in 100 hours in 4 weeks," "Fast, Effective and Conversational Chinese," "Professional Mandarin Training Servicing the Fortune 500 Companies," and "Chinese Language and Cultural Awareness Training."
Having neither time, money, nor energy to expend on a traditional classroom instruction, I decided to forgo the classroom setting and set my sights a little bit lower.
For starters, I just want to be able to hail a taxi, ask "how much?" at an open market, order dumplings at a restaurant and inquire where the restroom or "loo" is.
My initial humorous attempts to tackle this difficult language were a dismal failure, to say the least. I never thought it would be an easy task but rather a long drawn out process and my experience thus far proves me right.
To me, learning Chinese is actually four times harder then learning English. Take the word "da," for example. The word "da" has four meanings in Chinese depending on your inflection and pronunciation. "Da" can mean "to answer" and "to hit" and "to hang onto something" or just "big."
In my hometown of
If I had to put my initial efforts at conquering Mandarin Chinese into a book, I would title it "101 Ways Not to Learn Chinese by Jeff Walsh." Here are five specific ways I tried unsuccessfully:
The Osmosis Method: My original thinking was if I lived in a large Chinese city with native Chinese speakers who mostly speak Chinese, I should just be able to absorb the language by being around them. I can keep my television set on the Chinese channels thinking if I watch and listen to Chinese long enough, I will master the language. Not so.
The Tabbed Dictionary Method: Carrying around a Chinese-English dictionary with tabs marking the pages is simply a crutch and a copout, not a learning tool. Looking up the words and pointing to them in a dictionary for store merchants does not build a Chinese vocabulary at all.
The Translator Machine
Method: My translator translates 29 languages including Chinese. I have been
told the machine is not that accurate maybe it is a combination of both
Mandarin and Cantonese words? I don't know. I think if I had to get a new
translator machine, I would get a "Talking Translator Machine" so I
can pronounce words like "
The Charades Method:
Charades is a popular parlour game in the
For example, to communicate
the word "running," the player can jog in place and the other players
can guess at clues. In
The Denial Method: Denial
is not just a river in
To me, Chinese characters look like Egyptian hieroglyphics, Sanskrit or some kind of secret Da Vinci Code that I need to decipher. If I look at a full page of Chinese characters, it looks like a Chinese Eye Chart (Cover your left eye what do you see? I see Chinese characters that I can't read. Cover your left eye what do you see? More Chinese characters I can't read.)
As an English teacher of preschool, kindergarten and primary school students, I found the best way to learn Chinese is similar to the way I teach my students: One or two words at a time, big pictures and bright colours. The only drawback of learning this way is that my vocabulary is similar to a 6-year-old. Words like caterpillar (mao mao chong), ladybug (piao chong) and butterfly (hu die) will not help me when I am grocery shopping or ordering food in a restaurant.
My 6-year-old niece and I
will learn Chinese together, and I am sending her a book on learning Chinese to
Yet, to fully be open to learning Chinese, I have to want to change. Like the old joke, "How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? None. The light bulb has to want to change itself."
I need to learn the
language. I want to learn the language. I want to know more about the
I am surrounded by translators, Chinese friends, teachers, colleagues and other well-wishers who want to pass on their knowledge of Mandarin Chinese and the local Chinese culture.
Give me another six months and I will be like the bright light bulb illuminated with a complete conversational Chinese vocabulary. With the help of those around me, "learning Chinese" will soon no longer be an oxymoron.