... at least that was the assignment given to the reporter who wrote the article that I am posting an excerpt from, below. It's an interesting read about different "crash course" type approaches to learning a difficult language like Chinese. For what it's worth, my own efforts to learn Japanese has had it's highs and lows. Today, after about 3 years of effort, I am a little better than survival, and would border on conversational. I can understand the meaning of about 5oo kanji, even if I don't always remember the way to pronounce them all of the time. As I'm beginning a new job with another Japanese company, I'm redoubling my efforts to become first truly conversational, and eventually fluent, in Japanese. Check out the full article by clicking on the title of this post. It's a fun read.
Four Days Fluent
02.21.08, 6:00 PM ET
Mastering a foreign language is so difficult that diplomats and academics spend years doing nothing else. But the business world--or at least my editor--lacks that kind of patience.
"Eaves! You're good with languages, right? I want you to learn Chinese in three days. Yes. Three days. Do whatever it takes. And, yes, there will be a quiz at the end." He seems to find this funny.
Unreasonable, to be sure. But impossible? Maybe not. I manage to wrangle an extra day out of my boss, so I now have four days--or a total of 96 hours--to learn as much Chinese as possible. The plan? Total immersion. I would get a tutor, flashcards, movies, even subliminal learning tapes. My iPod would rotate Chinese vocabulary, my computer would run language software and I'd do my shopping in Chinatown. I would even ban our Mandarin-speaking intern from addressing me in English.
On the bright side, I do actually have a good ear for languages--I speak French and Spanish and studied Arabic for several years. On the other hand, Mandarin bears no resemblance to any language I've ever studied. I can't muscle my way in, feeling for familiar words and phrases.
First stop: My local bookstore, which carries 13 audio-learning packages, including Speak in a Week!, Mandarin Chinese in 60 Minutes, 15-Minute Chinese and, for those whose schedule demands an even shorter period, Now You're Talking Mandarin Chinese in No Time. There's also Learn in Your Car Mandarin Chinese and In-Flight Chinese, which says on the box that it "covers everything you need, and nothing more"--apparently for customers worried they might learn too much. It's tough to choose between "no time" and "instant," but I settle on Instant Immersion.
Early in the morning on my first day, I boot up my computer and install Rosetta Stone, a popular brand of language software. It says it teaches "the same way you learned your first language," which means that it uses only the foreign tongue. The program flashes images while saying words and spelling them in pinyin, the Roman-alphabet version of Chinese. Then I have to remember the words and match them to the images myself. Unable to recall the syllables, which sound completely random to my ear, I get all the answers wrong.
I calculate that it took me the first six or so years of my life to acquire fluent English, with constant exposure to the language. At this rate, if I used Rosetta Stone all day, every day, I could speak Chinese like a 6-year-old by 2014.
On the subway ride downtown, I listen to Instant Immersion. With the exception of "mama" and "baba," no sound reminds me of anything. It's like an aural assault of jarring sounds, and so far I feel discouraged.
At 9 a.m., I start my first private session at Berlitz, the 130-year-old language school. Berlitz is a serious place. It would never make insane promises about three-day Chinese. Nor, probably, would they ever accept assignments from a possibly deranged editor. Indeed, the professionals at Berlitz were highly reluctant to let me cram their five-day Immerse and Converse course into three, but I telephone frequently, begging and pleading, and eventually they relent.
My first teacher of the day, Duncan, spends three hours just working on my pronunciation, and in particular tones, the great bugaboo of Chinese-learning. The situation is this: Chinese is a tonal language and the various tones are sort of like musical notes, with each one radically altering meaning. Any vowel can be pronounced as a single note; or falling from a higher note to a lower note; or falling and then rising; or rising from a lower note to a higher note; or without any tone at all. So "ma" pronounced the various different ways means different things. One is "mom," and one is "horse." Get the intonation wrong and you're calling your mother a horse, or worse.
Consonants are no picnic either. For instance, a sentence that to my untrained ear sounds like "shuh shuh shuh," is in fact made up of three distinct words. The third word, "piece of paper," is pronounced "zhjr." As far as I can tell. In the third tone.
My afternoon teacher, Mr. Huang, refuses to speak English to me, which I think is great. I'm a big believer in immersion. That's mainly because I'm lazy and immersion doesn't require memorizing verb tables or long lists of vocabulary. It's all about passive absorption.
We begin conversing. Or at least, we begin exchanging sentences like "Is this a pen?" ("Zhe shi yuanzhubi ma?") and "Yes, this is a pen." (Shi, zhe shi yuanzhubi.") It's hard to imagine using these sentences in a real-life context, unless I am dealing with a blind man. Later we move on to more useful phrases like "Is the large chair red?"--"No, the large chair is gray." Major progress! At 2:30, I am elated. But at about 3 p.m., my mind shuts down, refusing to accept further information.
Nevertheless, I soldier on. At home, I pop one of Chinese movies I've rented, Beijing Bicycle, into the DVD player. I try not to look at the subtitles. The plot goes something like this: A guy has a bicycle. It gets stolen by a second guy and a third guy buys it on the black market. The first guy steals it back. But then the third guy steals it back from him. They keep stealing the bicycle back and forth for the rest of the movie, sometimes pausing to beat each other up. I'm not picking up much Mandarin, but I feel like I might be gaining profound insights into Chinese culture.
Immersion may be a passive way to learn, but there are even lazier ways, and I am determined to try them. I ordered a compact-disc set from a company called InnerTalk, which is designed to teach Chinese subliminally. The company specializes not in language but in self-affirmation messages, and its titles include tracks designed to help listeners quit smoking, lose weight, even grow larger breasts. If InnerTalk's tapes can accomplish all that, teaching me one of the hardest languages in the world should be a snap. The copy on the packaging explains: "Hidden affirmations enter your mind without conscious interference such as doubt, fear and so forth."