Learning Chinese is More Than Learning a Language

By: Dean Zollman

My first experience with a second language was as a freshman in high school.  I studied Latin. That indicates that I am somewhat older than the typical second language learner.  How many schools offer Latin these days? 

At University I studied German.  From that experience, I discovered that learning a language was not just gaining pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. The language was part of a culture and a way of thinking, all of which became part of my learning.

Until very recently non-Western languages were truly foreign. I visited China three times.  I negotiated somewhat on my own and was hopelessly lost in Beijing only once. But, I did not really contemplate learning Chinese. 

All of that changed in the Fall of 2017 when the Kansas State University Confucius Institute announced that it was offering Chinese classes. Why not, I thought.  I was technically retired, quite busy but could rearrange my schedule to fit in a few classes. It couldn’t be that hard, could it?

My teacher told me she knew physicists were smart, so she selected a relatively difficult book for my first introduction to Chinese. Little did she know that people become physicists because they have poor memories. They like to figure things out but not memorize them. Remembering characters has been a real challenge. Worse for me, unlike German, I cannot look at a character and know how to pronounce it.

The language was part of a culture and a way of thinking, all of which became part of my learning.

For the past 18 months, my teacher has helped me learn some Chinese and then has remained calm as I promptly forgot it. Gradually, I put together a few sentences and even read some simple paragraphs. But I am a long way from fluent. I am going to China in a couple of weeks. I worry that I know just enough to get me in trouble. I will say something simple like, “Wǒ jiào Zollman,” and someone will assume I can speak Chinese. Then, a torrent of words that I cannot understand will follow. Or, even worse my tones will be so bad that I will not be understood. 

There is a good part to all of this.  I do know some words and phrases. If I am patient, I can write some characters in the correct stroke order.  I am also starting to see the logic of the language. At the beginning, it seemed like a bunch of random lines on a page. Now when doing my homework, I can sometimes figure out the correct answer by reasoning rather than memorization. It is not quite the reasoning of physics, but it is closer than I thought that it could be.

While my ability to converse and write in Chinese is very limited, I have learned a great deal. As with my earlier language studies, the grammar and vocabulary are not the most important aspects. I have learned bits and pieces of Chinese culture and a little history. I know, for example, why children can get excited when they are given a red envelope. I know that when I go to China next month, I should remember my Zodiac animal. I even think that I can begin to see how the language is an influence on the way our Chinese students think.

At the same time, it has not been a one-way street. Almost every lesson has some time during which we discuss some aspect of American culture. Sometimes the discussion is about something simple, such as the difference between a salon and a saloon. Sometimes, it is more profound and causes me to think seriously about the history and diversity of our culture and why things are the way that they are.

When I decided to try learning Chinese, I thought that maybe it would keep my brain active. Then, when I got into it, I feared that it would wear out whatever brain I had left. Instead, it has been an opportunity to see a different way of communicating and to begin to learn how language influences culture and to reflect on my own language, culture and history.

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