'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 China's Jilin Province "learning Chinese" is my own personal oxymoron.

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 Chicago, Illinois in the United States the word "da" has only one meaning a slang term for the word "the." Some of the Chicago phrases using "da" include "da Bulls," "da Bears," and "you da man." (The "da" in "Da Vinci Code" is part of a proper noun, however).

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 "Xi'an" and "Qing" correctly.

The Charades Method: Charades is a popular parlour game in the United States. In a room of players, one player receives a word and has to act it out while the other players try to guess the word.

For example, to communicate the word "running," the player can jog in place and the other players can guess at clues. In China, charades is a daily event for me, not a parlour game. When I wanted throat lozenges I pointed to my throat and began to cough. As I asked a passer-by where a barber was, I pointed to my head and hair and used two fingers as a pair of scissors. Charades usually work well, however it does not increase one's Chinese vocabulary either.

The Denial Method: Denial is not just a river in Egypt. Denial for a frustrated Chinese learner like me consists of excuses like, "I don't need to learn Chinese. I am here to teach English for a foreign language institute," "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" and "I have been in China only six months."

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 the United States the same book that I use. When I return to the United States in a year, I am sure my niece will know more than Uncle Jeff will.

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 Silk Road and the Dragon Boat Festival. I want to hear the stories of my neighbours in the courtyard every night banging drums and dancing with their brightly coloured attire.

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.