August 24, 2008

"Easy Chinese"


Almost everyone who already speaks a language thinks it's easy. Of course. If it was hard, you wouldn't be able to speak it. What I object to is trying to teach people by saying, "see, it's easy!"

Aurora Carlson
hosts a program on the international, English-language station of Chinese state television called "Easy Chinese." In it, she gives you an easy phrase to memorize and repeat in times of need. "Where is the bathroom?" "I need some medicine."

This is a better idea in theory than in practice. As someone who learned a new language from scratch, I can tell you there are two parts to communication. Speaking the language is one, but understanding it is the other. It does me no good to know how to say, in Chinese, "Where is the bathroom?" if I cannot understand the answer.

So you haven't just had me memorize the "easy" phrase: Wei sheng jian. I need to memorize the possible answers: To the left, to the right, down the street, past the McDonald's in the alleyway -- you can't miss it.

I appreciate what she's trying to do. But she relies on memory for sounds that are alien to most people, and has a teenager's "Come on!! It's so easy!!" attitude about it. She also demonstrates by writing the phrase in Chinese characters. It seems to me it might be easier to remember if she wrote in Pinyin, phonetic Chinese, so that non-Chinese speakers could at least try to picture the sounds in their minds.

I have settled on a compromise. I have learned to say hello (ni hao) and thank you (xei xei) and content myself with my efforts. Because there will always be answer that I haven't memorized.

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