What was I thinking when I signed up for a semester of intensive Chinese lessons? Four hours a day, five days a week Frances and I have been going to Chinese language class at Jiao Tong University.
After Henry and Jack go to school we hop in a cab for a 20 minute ride to school with our Spanish friend Eva. Through the school gates we go, past the push cart vendors selling fresh fruit and hot roasted sweet potatoes. We walk past the student dorms (four persons to a room) and reach our building. The sign in front says â€œNUCLEAR SCIENCE LABâ€?. We trudge up the cement stairs to the second floor to find our class rooms, sitting behind tiny elementary school desks.
Unlike your basic European languages, there is another level of decoding that takes place in Chinese. The roots are different and the characters are not letter based. In addition there is the choice of four different tones for every vowel. The word for â€˜momâ€™ becomes â€˜horseâ€™ with the wrong tone. Precision is an important part of Chinese language.
Precision is also an important part of Chinese teaching. The teaching method is largely repetition and practice. I think that this is a good way to reinforce the learning, but very different from American teaching methods. The pace of teaching is fast, generally pitched to the top of the class. Needless to say, I am not at the top of my class.
As a teacher, it is good for me to remember the feeling of sheer terror when a student is asked a question that he or she cannot answer. This is a daily occurrence for me. Of course I could be totally prepared, but this would involve about three hours a day of studying. One hour seems about right for my schedule. My favorite part of studying is writing a line of each new character. Every character tells a story involving combinations of symbols for trees, people, water, fire, claws, hearts, mountains, knives, hands, etc. It is fun looking for the hidden messages in every one. Beijing becomes â€˜north capitalâ€™ and Shanghai becomes â€˜above the seaâ€™.
Our classmates are from all over Europe, Asia and Latin America. There is something Darwinian about the class. Anyone who signs up for 20+ hours a week of Chinese is smart and motivated. Then about a third of the original class stopped coming. The remaining students are lean, hungry language learning machines. The largest contingent in the class are four young Swedish dudes who lace their Chinese conversations with beer drinking examples. There are two engineers- one from Siberia and another from Puerto Rico. Since explanations are in English, only a couple of students are learning using their native language. It boggles my mind. I would understand very little if the teacher was using Spanish to describe verb tenses.
One of those language learning machines is Frances. She puts in her three hours a day of study and is happy about it. She listens to language tapes- before breakfast! While cooking dinner! In bed at night! She does not sit anywhere near me in class. I am in awe of her motivation and ability.
I could write a lot more, but tomorrow is another full day of class. Slowly I am grasping the basics. Maybe in a decade I could converse in complete sentences. But it is helping me make sense out of this crazy place.