Continuing Education

Beginning Chinese: Learning through Language

Beginning Chinese instructor Craig Shaw has always been a student of history, particularly that of cultures beyond our own. “My parents had lived in rural China during the late 1940s, doing relief work with the American Friends ImageService Committee,” Shaw recalls.  “I grew up hearing their stories.  I was in college in the mid-1970s, which was a very political time, and China was the great unknown, with many idealistic young people projecting their utopian fantasies on Maoist China.  I was curious about what Chinese society was really like, so I took a class in modern Chinese history.  I didn't have to study very long to decide that China was not my idea of a socialist paradise, but I found China fascinating and decided to major in Chinese history.  I ended up writing my senior thesis on Tang and Song dynasty political reforms.”

“In the meantime, I realized that to study China I needed to learn Chinese,” says Shaw.  “I ended up taking three years of Chinese language.  After graduation I spent a couple of years working in menial jobs and having a great time, but eventually I decided to get on with Chinese.  I spent three years studying in Taiwan, and then went to graduate school to study Chinese literature.”

According to Shaw, to be fluent in any foreign language one must learn to think in that language.  “Chinese grammar is relatively straightforward; so much so that some who have studied European languages joke that Chinese has no grammar,” he says. “Still, it takes a mental leap to have Chinese words and sentence structure come directly to your mind without going through English.  But that is the same for any language; largely a matter of time and effort.”
Chinese is a complex language and Shaw says he was particularly challenged by the writing system and the verbal tones.  “From the very beginning I found Chinese characters intriguing, but learning to read and write is a long, arduous process.  To someone whose first language is English or any other European language, it takes a lot of work to learn to distinguish the different tones, and to convince your ear and your brain that ‘ma’ pronounced with different intonations becomes totally different words.”

China is a massive culture with eight major dialect groups, but Mandarin is spoken by more people than the other groups combined, and has been made the official Chinese language. Consequently, it was the dialect with which Shaw became most familiar while studying and traveling. “In Taiwan and the People's Republic both, all education is in Mandarin, and it is the only language that is useful wherever you go.  I have spent most of my time in China Imageassociating with educated people who are comfortable with Mandarin, and I've never spent a long period of time among a group of people who do not speak Mandarin at all. When I was in Taiwan I lived in a university dorm or in a city where most people spoke Mandarin. In the mainland, when I worked in a rural part of Hunan Province even the local farmers who helped out with our program spoke at least some Mandarin.  Of course an anthropologist, for example, working in a particular area would want to learn the local dialect, but for academic work or travel to various parts of the country, Mandarin is what you need.”

As for the culture and its people, Shaw does not anticipate ever growing tired of all it has to offer. “China is a big and complicated country,” says Craig. “Along with all the thoughtful and sensitive Chinese people I know, I have met cruel and violent people, people who seem to care only for money, narrow minded pedants, boors, hypocrites, etc. And also lots of just plain decent folks.  You know, they're a lot like us.  I do have to remind myself sometimes that Chinese culture is much more hierarchical than I like, and that sometimes people speak indirectly when I would rather they would just say what they mean.  I feel the same way about American culture.”

Shaw says he’s never made a concerted effort to teach an overview of Chinese culture in his class as so much can be discovered through the language itself. “I do a lesson on kinship terms.  Chinese has two words for brother: one for older brother and another for younger brother, and similarly two words for sister.  There are eight different words for cousin, depending on whether the cousin is male or female, older or younger, and whether the cousin is the child of the father's brother on one hand, or of the father's sister or mother's sibling on the other.  This tells you something about the importance of hierarchy and family.”

In addition, cultural distinctions in the Chinese language are very revealing and drastically different from most Western languages. “In China, when you are complemented in any way you don't say ‘thank you’, you basically say that ‘it isn't true’,” says Shaw. “This tells you that the appearance of modesty is very important.”

For students seeking to explore the Chinese language for the first time, Shaw admits it looks daunting from a distance. “In some ways it is absurd to try to teach Chinese in an eight week, sixteen hour class.  That just isn't enough time to learn a language. But basic Chinese grammar is not too complicated; there is no tense, case, number, Imagegender, etc., and that means students can expect to learn to make a simple grammatical sentence, so when they go to China and learn a new word they will be able to use it.  I also hope they will have made a solid start on Chinese pronunciation, at least enough to be understood.”

“In class, I give the students a few simple sentence patterns and some related vocabulary and ask them to make their own sentences,” says Shaw. “I am always thrilled when, about the fourth class, I get them to describe their families in Chinese.  ‘I have two brothers.  One is named Bob and one is named Joe,’ or what have you.  Given a structure, they are already able to impart information in correct Chinese.  That is what I hope they will be able to keep doing when they go on."

Above all, Shaw hopes his students will find themselves inspired to keep learning the language. “I hope they're willing to keep trying,” he says, “and recognize that mistakes are inevitable, and should be seen as learning opportunities.”

Learn more about Beginning Chinese.

Photo credit #2: Maindo007_cc_2.0