Wednesday, June 21, 2006

More Mandarin Mania

Another Mandarin-learning story, this one in Time Asia: Get Ahead, Learn Mandarin. The article is mainly about students in other Asian countries learning Mandarin for business purposes. I don't think it's very surprising that Chinese and Cambdians, say, doing business together might want to use one of their native languages rather than English.

In the same issue is an article by a reporter who went through the famous Middlebury program, in which students make a pledge to only speak the target language. She writes:
About a month after I turned 21, I experienced a second infancy. I had enrolled for the summer at Middlebury College's Chinese School in the U.S. state of Vermont and signed a pledge that for nine weeks, on penalty of expulsion, I would not speak, listen, read or write in English, my native tongue. I couldn't speak a word of Chinese. When my teacher gave me a card with my new Chinese name, Zhai Shuzhen, I couldn't pronounce it. I didn't even know how to say hello.
I have always been sceptical of this kind of "target language only" education--why go round and round trying to describe something you don't know how to say? Of course, the answer is that the process of going round and round gets you talking, and I recently met someone who swears by this program. That person also had pretty decent tones. I imagined it would be pretty tough to start learning a language in such a program--when you can't even say "hello"--but some people say that's the best time. Maybe if someone had forced me to speak Japanese I'd be better at it.


Azuma said...

I second your friend on the Middlebury summer program. I went there for Chinese after only a year of classroom instruction and was able to enroll the following term at Beijing University in the highest level classes offerred there. In other words, within a year, I went from absolutely zero Chinese to enough to live there comfortably. And despite the fact of two semesters at school and nine weeks at Middlebury, the latter definitely taught me ten times as much as the former.
And the program works just as well for entry-level students. At first the first-years huddle together in fear and gestures, but after two or three weeks, they join everyone else. It's just amazing, really. They often claim there that you can learn more in nine weeks there than a year abroad, and I'm confident it's true.
I also went to Middlebury again for Japanese the following summer, and though in that case, unlike Chinese I had spent three or four years of loving self-study on it, it still exploded my proficiency, and even though a year passed between it and my coming here as a JET, I regard it as the foundation of whatever current fluency I have. Honestly, I couldn't recommend it highly enough. Especially for a language geek like me, it's pure heaven.

Sorry about the effervescence. I've been itching to go back there for years now, and I guess it shows.

Ray said...

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