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Reflections of a First Year Mandarin Student

by Kevin Deselms

Thinking back to the day I decided to start studying Mandarin Chinese, I can remember scouring the web, looking for other native English speakers who had successfully assimilated the language. I was looking for some kind of affirmation that it was possible to do, and do well. Unfortunately, much of what I found made it seem like an almost insurmountable challenge. According to most of the available information, it wasn't just that Chinese was the "hardest language on earth" for Westerners to learn; the conventional thinking was that, at thirty-two years of age, my brain was already far too settled into English to allow for mastery over a second language of any kind...let alone Chinese. I found only a small handful of stories to encourage me, all written by people living and working in China. That was hardly an option for me; I would have to become my own motivator!

With nearly a year of study behind me, as I write this - and having been told numerous times by native speakers that my relatively quick progress is "unusual" for a Westerner - I thought I'd share my perspective. May my experiences thus far be a source of encouragement and hope to all those who are thinking of tackling this great language, but have found themselves intimidated by the prospect. As my tutor Samuel, the founder of the Los Angeles Chinese Learning Center, would be eager to point out: "Mandarin is a language of the future, people would be wise to start learning it now!"

My interest in Chinese has its roots early in teenage life; it grew from a love of the movies produced in China and Hong Kong. Like most Americans, I have Bruce Lee to thank for exposing me to this brave new world of action cinema. Chinese filmmakers draw from a history and culture that is thousands of years old, rich with stories of heroes with near-superhuman powers (derived from intensive martial arts study), demons, gods, superstitions and more. But the visual sensibilities of these filmmakers were so much different from what I was used to, that every new Chinese film I saw seemed to offer something new and unique. So, it is with great satisfaction that I have watched American audiences embrace actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li; but also, to see the huge influence filmmakers like Yuen Wo Ping have had on the action presented in Hollywood movies. American audiences were caught off-guard by Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and then they were given a synthesis of Asian sensibilities and Hollywood, in the form of "The Matrix." That story is now well-known to any American movie buff.

This is the short explanation for why I've begun studying Mandarin. Four and a half years ago, I moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in film and television editing. Now that I have established a foothold in my capacity as an assistant editor, I feel it's time to ensure that I've got an edge, in a business that is experiencing a rapid influx of Chinese talent. I have many career goals, but one of them is to work on the kinds of action films that I grew up watching (and I'm hoping this spills over into television, as well). With studio co-operation and financing on recent films like Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and He Ping's "Warriors of Heaven & Earth," it's clear that what we are seeing is just the beginning of increased co-operation between Hollywood and China's film industry. I wanted to get in on the ground floor. So it was that, at the beginning of 2003, my journey in learning Mandarin began.

Now for the nuts and bolts of learning this language. First of all, let me illuminate what I feel is easily the best method for getting started: Pimsleur audiotapes and CDs. I truly believe that the Pimsleur method will give any serious student everything they need to learn pronunciation correctly from the very beginning, and the approach they take in the introduction and re-introduction of vocabulary is perfect. Be prepared, at the outset, to feel a little the untrained ear, Mandarin is about as foreign as a language can possibly sound. I had the benefit of years of movie watching, with subtitles rather than English the sounds of Mandarin were far more familiar to my ear than the average English-speaker's. That said, there really is no substitute for the methodical introduction of properly spoken language, which Pimsleur's lessons definitely provide. Yes, they're expensive...but in this case, you really DO get what you pay for. There are three "levels" of Mandarin courses available, each one containing thirty half-hour lessons.

However, the Pimsleur recommendation is that students not use books or write anything they've learned down; I would encourage everyone to ignore that recommendation. It will be crucial to continuing study that students learn the Romanized version of Chinese (called Pinyin) from the very beginning. It is of great value to know how to look up new vocabulary words in a Chinese dictionary, and how Pimsleur proposes that students do this - without first learning Pinyin - is beyond me. Also, because of the variety of totally new sounds in this language, English-speaking students will find that it isn't always clear which sound they're hearing. Confirming what we "thought" we heard by looking it up is critical to learning proper pronunciation. So when buying Pimsleur audio lessons, be sure to pick up a Chinese-to-English Pinyin dictionary...I use mine every day!

Near the end of my first package of thirty lessons, I was eager to begin talking to someone, rather than an empty room. What good is learning a language, if there's nobody to try it on? Once a student has gained the ability to form simple sentences with confidence, it's time to find a native speaker as a tutor. This will confirm that their pronunciation and intonation are correct; the native Chinese speaker's ear will catch even the slightest error. As an English speaker, the tendency will be to use typical English sentence intonation, with rising and falling tones providing emotional context. I can attest through experience that it will most definitely take a lot of effort for a beginning student to discipline their voice, when forming sentences. A native Mandarin speaker will aid in that learning process, and also suggest "conversational" alternatives to what Pimsleur has taught. This process will continue building the student's vocabulary and more importantly, it will improve their confidence, as well.

Nearing the end of the second set of Pimsleur lessons, I began to tackle the simplified writing system. Chinese students will be hard-pressed to find any material printed in pinyin...and of course, reading was the primary means by which I learned new vocabulary, in my youth. The writing system has an artistic appeal as well, which explains why so many Americans can be found with tattoos of Chinese characters on their bodies! However, if learning the tonal aspects of Mandarin and the subtle differences in sounds is a challenge, mastering the writing system will probably seem like scaling Mt. Everest. I wish I could say something, "Don't worry, it's easier than it looks." The truth is, it's exactly as hard as it looks! There are no shortcuts in learning this language, I'm sad to say.

I can offer some advice on the learning process, based on my first year. The first thing to realize, from the beginning, is that this process is going to take quite a while. It will also require fierce dedication to daily study. We learn our native language through daily, intensive exposure to it; the more time a student can spend with the language they're studying, the better. To that end, I highly recommend that students cultivate the habit of watching Mandarin-language television or film...on a daily basis, if at all possible. DVDs and Video-CDs are available through many online retailers or on eBay, if a trip to the local Chinatown is not an option. Avoid English subtitles like the plague; they are a crutch that will only hinder the brain from getting into "Chinese mode." In fact, I have found that watching programs with Chinese subtitles reinforces my recognition and memorization of the characters! The focus should not be placed on what isn't understood, but rather on what IS...students will find that as their studies progress, more and more phrases will "perk up their ears" as they watch. Fear not: the action on-screen will provide enough context to follow the story; the goal here is simply exposing the brain to the language. Also...make some Mandarin-speaking friends! The Internet has brought everyone in the world to within a mouse-click away, and I have made several good friends living halfway around the world. Through my tutor - also now my good friend - I have made some tremendous new friends, locally.

However, most important advice I can offer a student who is just starting down this path, one which I've tread for nearly a year, is this: Be patient, but be dedicated. It is of the utmost importance that new students of this, or any language have a goal in mind; a reason for learning that will drive them forward. None of us learned our native language in a year, but after a year of study I think any student will find that their facility with Chinese far eclipses that of a one-year old native! Adult language learning can be rapid, if enough focus is applied and the proper learning methods are used. I have outlined a few of the more valuable ones I've discovered during my first year of study, in this article. I expect to follow up in a year, with more reflections on my progress...imbued with the perspective only twelve months can bring. Until then, good luck...Zhu ni hao yun!

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