Sunday, May 29, 2011

Language Learning: An Update

My job is going well. I am quite in love with the English language, as those of you who know me can attest. I love puns, idioms, and other rhetorical devices; I love etymology and homonyms; and I am a stickler for grammar and spelling (recognizing that the latter does not matter and is often "sloppy" because of dyslexia or some other fairly adequate excuse).  I have made my way through a serious chunk of the heavy tome that I lugged to Asia--Rod Ellis's The Study of Second Language Acquisition. A WISC test long ago identified me as a 139 on verbal, I believe, but it is a number so I may be wrong, because I did considerably worse on the quantitative portion of said exam. (I frequently cannot remember a phone number all the way from the phone book to the phone.) Some might assume that I have all the motivation, knowledge, and mental facility to learn a second language, but it is going very slowly. I will get to that in a second, but first I want to spend a couple more minutes on English and the butchery of it here, especially by the police. Pardon the digression.

Shake Your Dragon Tail

A recent New York Times piece (not in the humor section of the paper) told of a banner unfurled at The Forbidden City in Beijing where some poor sheikh (pronoucned "shake") of the police tribes made a grave error. In the Chinese equivalent of a spelling mistake (they don't really spell words here, they "characterize" them), the banner glorified the successful return of stolen artifacts through diligent police work, “To shake the great strength and prosperity of the motherland and to safeguard the stability of the capital.”

“The pronunciation of the word for “shake” — han, with a falling tone — is exactly the same as that for “guard,” even though the written characters are different," reports the Times. While I cannot affirm this declaration--my vocab and dictionary skills being insufficient--my favorite Chinese dictionary website does not back up this claim. The word Han means, in a usage that I am familiar with, Chinese man of the Han race (all ethnic Chinese except the 56 minorities) and, in a usage which I am only now coming to be familiar with, it can mean "sweat." It can also mean South Korea, simply "man", or be a surname. With a rising tone, it can mean cold, poor or tremble with fear or, if you use a different character, to hold, contain or "keep...in the mouth." 

Rosetta Stone vs. Kyle

Zongzi is the traditional food of the
Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on
June 6th this year.
Kyle (or Fan Xin) is my tutor, who brought me Zongzi last week and who tells me every time that I see him (twice a week at my home) that he considers me not just a student, but a friend.  He has brought me a tea set and some jasmine tea. While the odd assortment of words that he has presented on his tidy, one-page lesson follow-up sheets might make you think he has neither rhyme nor reason to his pedagogy, this is not true. Most of the words in any one lesson use the same tone or the same convention as the others. In other words, he is carefully teaching me proper pronunciation through drilling words that are similar in sound and tone. He does not stop there, though. He is intent on making sure that Andy--one of my favorite colleagues here--and I learn "practical" things like how to introduce ourselves, how to order in a restaurant, and how to say things like, "Help!" or "I am allergic to wheat and dairy." This week, Kyle and I will, I hope, play Go (or weiqi), which is one of my college adviser's favorite pastimes.

Rosetta Stone is an over-priced, annoying piece of software, reputedly used by the FBI, CIA, NSA and other government agencies that don't have time to send staff to Middlebury College or the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Those of you who follow my Facebook posts know already about some of my complaints. They are petty, but when one spends 500 US dollars, you hope for something flawless.  


First of all, Rosetta Stone takes forever to load all the extra games and things. There is no community to speak of, despite this advertised advantage. There have been problems with my mouse not lining up with what I am clicking on so it thinks I am choosing the wrong answer. It is interminably slow on start-up if I decide to operate it without being connected to Internet...which is a real pain in China where Internet connectivity is intermittent. My newest set of problems include getting it to advance from one lesson to the next and not repeat. I have spent a fair amount of time wrestling with their technical support staff to get it working smoothly.

For all of the bad things that I have said so far, it is a great program. The methodical, carefully researched program is top-notch. Once I overcome my desire to blame its shortcomings for my own, I am sure that I will gain some proficiency with the language. (That said, if I am asked to repeat nü ren one more time into the headset, I think I might turn into a misogynist.)

NanHu Park
If I felt like sitting down for half an hour more in front of this computer every day, I would be much further along with my Chinese. That is both my laziness, as somebody who is working a heavy schedule, shining through and an inherent flaw with the program: Language is for communicating with and between people. Learning it from a non-responsive, inanimate machine is a hard thing to motivate yourself to do when the sun is shining and it is 88 degrees Farenheit, which is why my friend and I blew off studying yesterday and dropped ¥99 (or $15.25) on tea and green-tea flavored pumpkin seeds at an authentic tea house after a one hour walk around NanHu Park and a "pricey" lunch at a restaurant, where we ate duck and pork with rice and vegetables for a whopping 39 RMB (or $6.01).