To Learn Mandarin: A Personal Journey Through the Decades

By Dennis Delehanty

As a teenager in the 1960s, growing up in suburbs south of Boston, I fell under the grip of the tantalizing mysteries of the Chinese language. At home, I would leaf through weekly issues of Life and Look magazines and ponder the inscriptions on signs carried aloft by Chinese citizens. Someday, I told myself, I would uncover the meanings of those symbols.

So, entering college as a student of Russian (as well as French and Spanish), I resolved to take up the study of Mandarin. But my small college in Maine offered no courses in that language. Following graduation from college, undeterred, I enrolled in an evening course in Mandarin at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education near Harvard University, and thus launched a haphazard, often frustrating trajectory in the study of Chinese. That journey wound through George Washington and Georgetown universities, the State Department’s Foreign Language Institute’s early morning classes … then, after a 15-year hiatus, resumed in intensive tutoring classes in 1999 and later in independent study at George Mason University. If I had not learned to speak Chinese as fluently as I could in Western languages, at least I had taught myself to read Chinese, plowing through several longish 20th-century novels by such authors as Lu Xun, Ba Jin, Lao She, Shen Congwen, and Yu Hua.

From 1983 and through the ensuing decades, a dozen business trips to China punctuated my study of Mandarin and afforded practical linguistic encouragement for my further efforts to conquer that language. How that country transformed itself from the Mao jackets and bicycles of the early 1980s to the skyscrapers and sprawl of today!

My connection to China suddenly grew even stronger, when quite by accident my daughter Carmen took up the study of Chinese at Haverford College. After her graduation, the Confucius Institute awarded her a year-long scholarship to study the language at Beijing Language and Culture University, after which she remained in Beijing for three years, working for a company that helps Chinese high school students apply to top U.S. colleges and universities.

In 2012, I retired from the Department of State, winding up a 37-year-long career in government. Reflecting that I should find some way to show appreciation for the Confucius Institute’s generosity towards our family, I began to attend weekly presentations about Chinese affairs sponsored by George Mason’s Confucius Institute. By late 2014, this casual contact had led to the formation of a Chinese Reading Club at George Mason’s Confucius Institute, which by mid-2016 boasted of six experienced Chinese learners who could read and discuss difficult, highly literary shorter works of such esteemed Chinese authors as Mo Yan, Liu Zhenyun, Bi Feiyu and Su Tong. We suspect that this advanced Chinese Reading Group – whose members are not native speakers – may be unique within the United States. The challenges and joys (!) of our biweekly group meetings to decipher the cultural, linguistic and literary secrets of the short stories we read, in Chinese, under the expert guidance of our CI teachers He Xiao and Wang Lihong. have brought us to a deeper understanding of China and the Chinese mind through modern literature – even to those in our group who have lived and studied China and Chinese for decades.

I am personally grateful for the opportunity that the Confucius Institute has provided to advanced learners of Chinese in the Washington, D.C. area through the formation and support of our Reading Group. I can only suggest that the Confucius Institute at George Mason might consider promoting the model of this Reading Group to other Confucius Institutes in the United States and worldwide, as more and more Westerners embark on that wonderful voyage to learn the world’s most spoken (and read) language: Mandarin Chinese.

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