Learning Chinese in America by Marie Guillot
Graphic © by Marie Guillot
When we received the Company memo offering a 40-hour Mandarin language course, I was thrilled. In the past, I had been trying to learn Chinese with tapes, without much success, (actually, none at all).
Shortly after that, twenty-four employees are gathered around the table of the conference room, with one brave teacher, Zhang Xian Sheng. He is a young man from Shanghai, presently studying engineering in the USA, and sent to our factory by the internationally acclaimed Berlitz School.
Per the Berlitz method, we are to use only Chinese words during the class. The idea is to acquire only comprehension and spoken language, not reading and writing. The teacher must encourage the students to practice the new words immediately, while preventing them from using their English.
To explain, he uses repetition and gestures, printed images and objects from the room, until we understand and repeat. Then, he asks simple questions, expecting simple (but correct) answers. Politely, but also blatantly and consistently, he ignores any English word that may be heard across the room; a very efficient deterrent indeed.
Being capable of saying The blue book is on the table fills us with a sense of high magnitude achievement. I have a pen in my right hand and three plus five equals eight come next, with the same eagerness from the group.
Xian Sheng keeps going: My yellow airplane is bigger than your red car and We are all sitting around the table; some of us are American, some are not.
These complex constructions may sound advanced, but the basic Chinese grammar is simple enough and there are no articles or conjugations. At our level, all it takes is the association of nouns, adjectives and verbs, mostly a matter of vocabulary.
However, as the weeks are passing by, our little group is shrinking. You really have to be strongly motivated to pursue the effort. Six of us stay on, faithfully suffering the ordeal. At that point we each get a book.
The text is presented in Pinyin, the international phonetic system transcribing Chinese characters into Latin letters since 1982. This book is a welcome novelty, adding effective written exercises and breaking the established routine of the class.
What now about the real world? For us in the class, the real world is in the next lab: two employees from the Taiwan Branch of the Company have recently arrived for extended training. We go and try out our recent knowledge on them.
A cruel disillusion awaits us and dampens our enthusiasm; maybe they are not really Chinese at all, maybe they are spies? How come that our teacher understands everything we say so well, while those Asian newcomers seem so puzzled, even suspicious, as to what we seem to expect from them?
A few more weeks and we learn the meals, the time, the weather, the family, the days and the months. The teacher keeps asking questions and we keep answering.
But now, with all these words accumulated in our heads, he may be sometimes taken aback by our answers. Recovering quickly every time, Xian Sheng explains and asks, again and again. His patience is infinite, which must be a pre-requisite for Berlitz teachers. We students are happily juggling with those answers, enjoying each other mistakes tremendously.
For sure, when we will visit Chinese factories our overseas colleagues will get information about the colour of our pens and cars, about the size of our chairs and beds, and we can ask then how many brothers they have and their respective ages.
But, is there anything else one needs to know, really?
At the end of the 10 weeks, one of us reads an excerpt (in English) from Barron's Traveler Language Guide, Mandarin:
"The Chinese are delighted when foreigners try to speak their language. They will try their best to understand you, even if your pronunciation is close to unintelligible, and probably even compliment you on your excellent command of Chinese to boot. You need not take such flattering compliments too seriously; they are simply the Chinese way of expressing appreciation of your efforts."