How I Learned Chinese (part 1)
06 May 2007
Over the years I’ve gotten quite a few questions about this, so I thought I’d write a series of entries that explain everything. I’d like to stress from the beginning that the method I used is not going to work for everybody. It’s not “the right method.” It’s simply the method I used. This post will focus on my formal education in the States.
I decided to start learning Chinese while I was an exchange student in Japan. When I went to Japan I was still a microbiology major. I had to write an essay about why I wanted to go to Japan in order to get into the program, and among my reasons I listed all the advances the Japanese were making in biotechnology, which led to my belief that knowing Japanese would help me as a scientist. It was while I was in Japan that I decided I would abandon microbiology altogether to go the linguistics route. At that point I made a lot of practical decisions which would set the course that I’m still on now.
I don’t remember what all the stimuli were for the decisions I made that night, but I recall vividly the intense excitement for my new course of action. That high made me surer than I’d ever been about what career path I wanted to take. Some of the things I decided that night were:
1. I would change my major from microbiology to Japanese.
2. I would minor in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
4. I would also minor in Latin American Studies.
3. I would take Chinese classes on the side.
5. I would go to China after I graduated to learn Chinese and teach English.
My choices were all very pragmatic. I didn’t major in linguistics because after I got back from Japan I wouldn’t have time to earn all the credits I needed to graduate in four years. I wanted to graduate in four years because my scholarships paid for everything but they only lasted four years. I was also eager to get to China after graduation.
I minored in TESOL so that I would know what I was doing as a teacher in China. I started working as an “interaction leader” at the English Language Institute at the University of Florida, and I loved it. I loved all the intercultural exchange, I loved being a part of other people’s learning processes, and I loved the linguistics of it all.
I minored in Latin American Studies because (1) I didn’t want to lose the four years of Spanish I had in high school, (2) I wanted to continue taking Spanish courses, and this made them count towards something, and (3) I wanted to study in Mexico, and this minor justified that expense.
Anyway, my third year at UF I started studying Chinese formally from scratch. I was 20 years old. I started with traditional characters, but after the first semester decided they were a pain in the ass and a totally unnecessary one since I was planning on going to the PRC after graduation.
I remember clearly how hard I struggled with tones my first semester. We were supposed to go to the language lab and work on the tones, but I never did. I was struggling, but it was clear that I wasn’t the worst off in the class, so I didn’t put in the extra effort. I was of the opinion that it would get easier with time, so I didn’t sweat it too much. I could still make A’s in the class with mediocre tones.
The first semester our instructor gave us a series of “tone quizzes” to force us to work on the tones. She did this by reciting a number of Chinese poems and making us put the tone marks on the syllables. We had no idea what the poems meant; they were just sounds to us at that point. I tried really hard at learning to identify the tones but ultimately sucked at it. I passed the quizzes with flying colors by identifying tonal patterns in the poetry and memorizing a few “marker” syllables to identify which patterns went with which poems.
My first year of Chinese study at UF was pretty unremarkable. We had the typical character-writing homework and classroom exercises. Now that I think about it, my teacher tried hard to get us doing communicative exercises in class. We often did pair work, or exercises where each student only had one piece of information and had to find the other student with the other piece of information by using Chinese. These kinds of exercises became increasingly difficult to pull off in the classroom with each semester, however, as the Chinese class attrition rate is about 50% from semester to semester.
The second year of Chinese class we started using Integrated Chinese. I rather liked it as a textbook. I found the vocabulary useful and the grammar explanations effective. This is the book I really focused on before going to China. I didn’t have time to take Chinese class my last semester, but I was able to keep studying Integrated Chinese. [Note: I think there are now better materials for studying Chinese available, but I didn’t have those at the time.]
I think I got a pretty good theoretical foundation in three semesters of Chinese at UF. My grammar and character knowledge (both simplified and traditional) were pretty solid. What was not solid was my pronunciation. I knew I didn’t have control over my tones, and that my pronunciation of pinyin q, x, j and r were not correct (more on this). I learned enough to pass my classes with A’s, but that didn’t include accurate pronunciation.
The important thing was that I knew before I went to China what my weaknesses were. I didn’t realize how profoundly those weaknesses would impact my attempts at communication. But more on that in the next post in this series.