Qing nin shuo man yidianr. (Please speak a little slower).

Most Chinese schools prefer to have the foreign English teacher immerse their kids in English and the use of Chinese during English class is discouraged. School administrators never require foreign English teachers to understand or use Chinese, so it’s possible to get by with little or no language capacity. However, the time I’ll spend in the English-only classroom will be a very small percentage of my time, apparently only about 10 hours per week. The rest of the time I’ll be living and working in a community where most people do not speak any English. Communicating with the other teachers, the children’s parents, and other people in the local community will most often require using the national language, Mandarin. Combine that with my main motivation for going to China – to get to know more about this fascinating country – and you can see why I very much want to learn to speak and understand Mandarin. I’ve been working hard over the summer months to learn as much as I can before leaving for Shanghai at the end of August.

Mandarin is not an easy language to learn, with consonants that are difficult for westerners to pronounce, grammatical rules very different from English, and the usage of tone to carry semantics (a phoneme/syllable spoken with a flat tone has a very different meaning when spoken with a rising or falling tone.) All of these attributes contribute to making the language seem overwhelmingly difficult at first. But I’m happy to report that I’ve already passed the stage of believing it an impossible task. I’m enrolled in a summer adult-education class at Union County College called Business Chinese. It meets every Wednesday night for 2.5 hours and focuses on very practical aspects of the language, attempting to provide enough spoken Mandarin skills to be able converse with Chinese business associates. Every week, the teacher makes us get up in front of the class and attempt speaking to each other using what we have learned thus far. Like many people, I’ve found speaking Chinese quite intimidating at first, knowing I must be mangling pronunciations and perhaps even saying the wrong words through incorrect tonal emphasis. But it’s clear that focusing on speaking and understanding Mandarin is the most productive route for me. Most Chinese courses require that you learn to read and write the complicated Chinese characters (also known as sinographs) that form the basis for written Chinese. Our textbook does include the Chinese characters but it also presents the Chinese words using PinYin , a system that uses the Western alphabet to show how the Chinese words are to be pronounced. Learning to read and write Chinese characters would be much harder and take a lot longer than just learning spoken (oral) Chinese using PinYin. As I am developing no reading or writing capability, I have to laugh when I think that my educational goal is to become perfectly illiterate. 🙂

In addition to the adult-education course, I’m pursuing several other avenues for learning Mandarin. I purchased a software program called Chinese Flashcards that is great for building vocabulary. I loaded it onto my laptop (actually Grace’s laptop that she has so kindly donated for this trip) so I can continue learning while in Shanghai. I’ve also joined a really cool web-based community called LiveMocha. This site offers online lessons in many different languages and they are very good. Another very nice aspect of the LiveMocha community is how it is designed to allow people to help each other. When you register, you indicate the language you wish to learn and the language(s) at which you have proficiency. When I registered and indicated I am fluent at English, I received a large number of “Be my Friend” requests, mostly from Chinese people interested in learning English. I’ve chosen three or four of these people as my friends and it’s been very rewarding. Not only are they helping me with Chinese but I’ve found it very satisfying to help them with English. Some of their messages have been quite touching as they have expressed their heart-felt appreciation for the help given. One nice young law student in Beijing has been very helpful to me by recording audio files which I try to interpret and by listening to my own recorded attempts at Mandarin. It feels very nice to make a connection of this kind with someone so far removed from our own culture and existence. As there is such a push in China to become bilingual with English, there are a lot of Chinese people on LiveMocha that are competing for a limited number of English-speaking friends. So if you have any interest in learning another language, or in just helping someone else learn English, I would highly recommend LiveMocha. Be aware, however, that at some point, it will become a subscription-based service. At present, it’s free while they test their beta (trial) version.

Finally, I have been helped by some of my local Chinese-American friends with pronunciation, grammar and other questions (you know who you are.) I’m optimistic that I will be able to have (limited) conversations with people in Shanghai who have no English. And if this isn’t possible when I arrive, perhaps my own immersion in Mandarin will allow it to happen before my three-month assignment concludes. I’ll let you know how it works out.

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