Conquering Your First Journey to China Part One: The Language Barrier
Dr. Jay Swartz
CLM Owner John Abbot asked me to write a new column for these pages and what seemed to be most helpful would be to prepare a primer on what a western man might need to do to prepare for that inevitable first trip ever to the Central Kingdom.
Now that I’ve (somewhat successfully) completed that important step on these pages will be a summary of thoughts that might assist other guys who plan to do more than gawk at all the Chinese beauties on these pages, dream about them, and perhaps exchange a few chat lines. Chats are fun, but isn’t the ultimate goal to actually meet some of these exotic flowers, guys?
This first installment addresses your greatest challenge, that of somehow figuring out how to overcome the language barrier. As has been noted by many others before it is an unwritten custom that the lady is expected to learn English, but if you really care about somebody don’t you want to try to meet them halfway?
I thought so at least, so somewhat diligently I began intensive Mandarin lessons in November beginning with the usual ni hao/xie xie type niceties first. Early on, you must decide if you are going to go the deluxe route and learn Chinese characters or just study the basics of speaking via Pinyin. Having a most demanding job as a university professor and department chair of international business I settled for the latter.
The most important point about tackling this task is that you must not let your lessons slip more than a day or two, and even better is if you have a native speaker who can help you. I fortunately live in a Chinese American neighborhood in California where I have access to almost two million mostly willing accomplices but if you don’t have this benefit, try to find a telephone or online chat partner to move you along.
(Note from CLM: obviously members of CLM have many willing wonderful Chinese ladies available to be their teachers, and this is a great way to get to know someone. She helps you with your Chinese and you can help her with her English.)
Originally, I used a Random House Chinese language program that is similar to most others on the market wherein you try to memorize words and then eventually you build them into sentences. I would play CDs in my car wherever I drove to a point that my Chinese fluent daughter was going mad with my bad tones! But for several months progress was slow.
Later, I switched to two better methods and now I use both together. As a result, my fluency while still mostly basic has improved dramatically. The more acclaimed method is use of the Rosetta Stone program, one that uses a series of pictures and you learn the language as natives do. So as you learn to speak about swimming (you yong) you will see a picture of people in the water and never the English word.
While this method has helped improve my recognition skills the best method I have found is called the Pimsleur method, one in which you build a series of conversations, slowly adding new words and phrases in each lesson. Once again, there are no English words to link so your learning curve is in Chinese rather than memorizing translations.
(Note from CLM: another good learn at home course for getting quickly and comfortably into conversational Chinese is from Rocket Languages. If you're in a hurry it can be very helpful. For more info click on the picture to the right.
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Learning Chinese, I have discovered, is far more difficult than prior lessons in Spanish, German, French, and yes, even Arabic when I was stationed in Cairo as an Army colonel. But when you scan the pages of all these lovelies smiling back at you…. well, it surely makes learning the language a whole lot easier!
Dr. Jay Swartz is a professor of international business and marketing at the California State Polytechnic University and its department chair there. He has been a student of Chinese culture and history for many years who recently retired from the United States Army as a full colonel. Among his favorite books is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and among his favorite movies is the Zhang Yimou classic Raise the Red Lantern. He proudly reports to be the only non Asian on his street in Southern California where Chinese is more commonly spoken than English.
Dr. Jay Swartz
2/20/2012 5:06:45 PM