Saturday, October 04, 2008

Learning Mandarin

Yesterday, Joanna was off school, so she had her first Mandarin lesson with our new friend David Yu, who has recently begun attending VCC. Joanna has always loved anything Asian--especially little Asian children. When the opportunity arose to join West Hills' (Portland) month-long trip to China next July, she was ready, and eager to learn the language. David has graciously offered to tutor her.

Since yesterday was a vacation day, we spent five hours with David, learning a little about Chinese culture and beginning to master the four tones, the basic sounds, and learn to count. You don't speak Mandarin, you sing it. I have a good ear, so I got the high, bright first tone down pretty well; Joanna has more of a struggle with the tones. But she has always been able to make amazing mouth noises ...explosions, animal sounds, you name it; so some of the sounds that we lack in English but that are essential to Mandarin come much easier for her.

David tells us that the Chinese have much more respect for someone who can pronounce just a few phrases perfectly, than for someone who speaks paragraphs which are mispronounced. So we spent an hour just trying to master "xiexie," or "thank you." If this is any indication of the sort of concentration Chinese students have, the U.S. is in big trouble!

Mandarin is one of the five "exceptionally difficult languages" in the world, says the Foreign Service Institute. According to this article that appeared in Time Asia a few years ago, it's never too late to try learning:

Our ability to effortlessly absorb a new language—any new language—begins to decline by age six, according to Robert DeKeyser, a professor of second-language acquisition at the University of Maryland. By the time we are 16, we have lost just about all hope of being able to speak a second language without a telltale accent, DeKeyser says. The reasons why children have a remarkable capacity to absorb new languages that adults generally lack are unclear. Some researchers studying the brain believe the answer may lie in a fundamental process by which grey matter develops. As we age, nerve fibers in our brain become sheathed in a protective coating made of fats and proteins. This coating, called myelin, boosts the speed of signals moving through the brain, but it also limits the potential for new connections. "It's as if you have a lot of tracks where people walked around the countryside and somebody came down and put asphalt on them," says Mike Long, who also teaches second-language acquisition at the University of Maryland. "Those roads are stronger and better, but they also limit possibility." In other words, adults find it difficult to alter the way they communicate because they become wired for their native tongue.

Difficult—but not impossible. In some areas, such as vocabulary memorization, older students can actually outperform younger peers. "Adults shouldn't say 'I'm too old to learn,'" says Long. "All over the world, millions of people have become extremely good in a second language, even when they started in their 30s and 40s." You can't expect to soak up Chinese like a sponge, but you do have the ability to concentrate and to study for hours on end. Unfortunately, if you want to learn Chinese, that's what you'll need to do.

Well, if nothing else, it will keep my neurons firing! "Ma, ma, ma, ma...."

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