The man who learned Mandarin


It’s time for yet another installment of an ongoing theme in the Pacific: Mandarin Chinese. Or, more specifically, learning it.

I’ve known a grand total of one American who has become fluent in it. That’s “know” as opposed to “know of,” since I know of several Americans who have earned the distinction, mostly because of books they wrote or instructional videos they made. But as far as flesh-and-blood, eyeball-to-eyeball let’s-have-a-cuppa-coffee goes, my tally remains at one.

This guy, an attorney, writes legal documents in Chinese, so with that much going for him, I asked him for any advice he’d care to pass on to a student. Not that I’m much of a student, I just dabble in it as a hobby. Still, he passed along his wisdom, which I will, in turn, pass along to you.

He suggested a goal of learning 3,000 words of the most essential vocabulary along with a roughly commensurate level of grammar and such. He said that when he hit that point, things begin to click at a basic, but workable, level for street-level interaction. From there he could practice enough to improve.

Reciprocally, he noted that before he hit that point nothing seemed to click at all. He was always discouraged and on the cusp of quitting.

I’m not trying to sell you, or anyone else, on the advice, but I was grateful for it.

My related contemplations run like so: First of all, I can’t test out the theory yet, because words keep slipping out of my brain just as fast as I put them into my brain. Getting to 3,000 words is like walking on roller skates; I can get close, but then I slide back. The situation is aggravated by the fact that these days I’m not willing to invest much time in it.

Meanwhile, getting a little bit philosophical about things, I regard the term “conversation” as a murky one. If I say “hello” to you, and you say “hello” back, and then we both say “goodbye,” is that really a conversation? I don’t have an answer to that, but it’s not really the type of conversation I have in mind when I contemplate a conversation.

If we bump up a rung or two on the ladder, we find that there’s an asymmetry involved: It is often easier to speak than it is to listen. When we want to say something, we can strategically cast our words to steer around our weak points. But when we’re being told something, we have to catch things as they hit us.

The situation is really sticky in Mandarin, since it always seems to have 20 ways of expressing the same basic thing. When you’re transmitting, you only have to know one way. But when you’re receiving, you don’t have this luxury.

It is useful, then, to be able to ask people to speak slower, to repeat themselves, to explain what a certain word means, or to write things down.

As pushy as this is sometimes, I’ll submit that it’s genuine interaction, a feedback process that’s more than an exchange of canned pleasantries. It’s nudging us closer to a real conversation. Having field-tested this approach high and low, I can report that some people will acknowledge the situation and will downshift to accommodate a struggling counterparty (namely, me). Some won’t. That’s just how it is, so there’s no point in worrying about it.

If you’re looking for a bright spot, I’ll note that for Saipan’s context, using a foreign language for tourism is easier than having to free-form everything in a more comprehensive context. Much of what we have to say to tourists is simple, predictable, and well-defined. No, that’s not conversational, but it’s often enough to hold things together until you can, if necessary, call in better-equipped reinforcements. Even a scant inventory of 100 words or so, if pronounced intelligibly, can pay dividends. A long time ago I compiled cheat sheets in various languages for this sort of tourism communications, but I never managed to polish them into a high gloss.

Well, that’s the latest installment in this ongoing saga. The topic isn’t going away, so it will bob into view from time to time in this space, just as it has for years now.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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