Eight Questions for Deborah Fallows, Author of 'Dreaming in Chinese' - China Real Time Report - WSJ

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JUNE 29, 2011, 1:11 PM HKT

Eight Questions: Deborah Fallows, ‘Dreaming in Chinese’
As China’s influence intensifies across the world, interest in the study of its official language is also growing. Fluency in Mandarin – long the world’s most commonly spoken language – has become an increasingly desirable skill in both business and diplomatic circles, with roughly 1, 600 American public and private schools now offering Mandarin classes. Recently, the language has even been dubbed “the new English ” by those confident in its future. But as author Deborah Fallows found out, knowledge of Chinese is advantageous in more than just a political or economic sense. A Harvard graduate with a PhD in linguistics, Fallows and her husband lived in China for three years , during which she undertook to learn as much as she could about the native tongue. “Dreaming in Chinese: Lessons in Life, Love, and Language” documents her efforts to acclimate to Mandarin as well as what the language revealed to her about Chinese history, etiquette, social identity and even romance. The book was first released in the US in late 2010, and a paperback version scheduled to come out in September of this year. China Real Time caught up with Ms . Fallows by email and asked her about how studying Mandarin compares with studying other languages, what native speakers think of her book and whether or not Chinese speakers love their language more than English speakers. As a linguist, you must have studied a lot of languages. How did studying Mandarin compare? No contest : Mandarin is both the most difficult and the most challenging language I’ve studied. I have studied lots of languages in my life, starting with French, Latin , and German in high school. During linguistics courses in college and graduate school , I studied more – a Bantu language, Swedish, and others, [although] in academic linguistics , you spend more studying about the language — its structure, sound system, semantics, evolution, things like that . Mandarin was completely different, in all the linguistic ways mentioned above, from any other language I spent any time on. The good news: very little grammar . The bad news: tones , a sound system with lots of new and barely distinguishable sounds . It took me about 18 months of regular study before I got traction and felt I wasn’t re -learning the same thing every week. So, functionally, it was a real challenge. But linguistically, it grew more and more fascinating . I kept running into things where I’d think : Languages are not supposed to do this! Why are there so many homonyms, when the point of language is to clarify, not obstruct. Why tones ? Why so many compound words? I could go on. Most books on China approach the country through more traditional lenses: economics, politics , media, etc. Does the language approach reveal aspects of the country that others miss? The books about China I have enjoyed most and learned most from are those that narrow in on China with a small lens. None of these books pretends to cover the panorama of China, but each of them brings an insight into China from the special experience of the writer . Because of my background in linguistics , I found that the language was my way in to the country and culture Early on, I would be surprised at the abruptness of many short exchanges I was having with people. On my side, I always wanted to tack on some equivalent of Sorry, or Thanks , or some words like could, should, would – all those softeners that make a message less severe. I learned soon enough that it was the nature of the Chinese language that mainly drove home the impression of abruptness. Compared to most other languages , Chinese goes very short on the usual softeners and is a very spare language . Seeing that blend of language and culture can help put impressions or situations into context. That is the kind of way language can help understand culture. But as a discipline, language doesn’t have a particular lock on the advantage; art, architecture , cuisine, dance — they can all do the same thing . A common complaint from Americans studying Mandarin is etiquette reversal. Commenting on someone’s weight isn’ t considered rude, for example, while – as you’ve mentioned — using courtesies like “please” and “thank you” are rare. How do you deal with such a linguistic about-face?
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7/1/2011 8:22:09 AM

or asked which of your children you like best? This is part of the non -classroom learning that makes living within another language fun . is that the (often maligned ) pinyin system does a great service in bridging the gap to modern times . Perhaps a more straight-line history of the language makes it more accessible. as children. and the battles over simplified v. ” Are you suggesting that Chinese people have a deeper appreciation or love for their language in comparison to.WSJ This is interesting. an Italian – neither able to speak the other’s language – “chat” away for hours about all manner of things with all kinds of gestures and knowing glances. say. You write in the book that “ the typical Chinese person [seems] keenly invested in his [or her] own language. I also deeply appreciate the value of the history tied up in the characters. Also. I shouldn’t have been surprised at that .China Real Time Report . where. traditional characters rage on. China’s government has gotten into the Mandarin teaching game in a big way with its global network of Confucius Institutes. an American. The schoolgirls were shocked – horrified – that this husband would ask his wife for something in such a formal way . your rent. In the early 20th century. So. I find characters incredibly difficult. If language is all about communicating. I realized pretty early on how much more often I was saying my pleases and thank yous in China – much more often than I heard coming from the Chinese. as you put it. This woman had carried this memory for probably six decades. Should people be concerned about learning Chinese from a government sponsored? Page 2 http://blogs. As a more aural than visual person. And I have watched my mother. ” people’s stories come spilling out about how their mothers never told them . Some naturally-gifted linguists can speak nearly like natives without having been to the country where the language is spoken . and it helps make Mandarin accessible to foreign language learners around the world. then anything and everything you do to communicate helps. one of the lăobăixìng. And the history. Does someone have to immerse themselves in culture to achieve fluency in a language? Some people can read fluently in a foreign language without ever having spoken a word . culture. language was examined along with so many other things in society. that they loved them. and her story came spilling out .Eight Questions for Deborah Fallows. So. your age. There’ s an interesting linguistic battle going on in Taiwan right now over the use of traditional versus simplified Chinese characters that brings to mind the long-running debate about the value of the character system – are characters holding China back ? China has been unusually engaged in language planning. the thread of Chinese language history compared to English. perhaps Chinese kids get hooked on their language from the start. and my sister’s mother-in-law. It helps with all things digital. Author of 'Dreaming in Chinese' . As hard as I find them to learn. without much language at all. many Chinese speakers have brought their own stories and experiences to illustrate some of the language points I talk about in the book. vividly and personally. And only now do they realize how unusual that might be. and story-telling that are wrapped into characters are certainly more engaging than learning the rules of English writing and spelling. and as inefficient as the system might seem . Yes. it seems to be that this two-party system works pretty well overall. Why ? Time and energy spent on language education: Mastering character writing is a lot harder for kids than mastering printing and cursive. So who knows what fluency really is. No such thing in Chinese. One Chinese woman told me an involved story about her childhood experience with a western missionary couple. And second. this has been one of the best rewards of writing this book . and how often to use the actual words. I would argue. then it’s another thing to learn the social and cultural conventions for when. One of the themes that runs through the book is becoming more local or .wsj. Goodwill can go a long way toward making up for grammatical mistakes or forgotten vocabulary. Should there be a national language? What about a standard pronunciation ? Phonetic systems came and went. It was hard to NOT do it! It’s one thing to learn the language. I have found that the Mandarin speakers are first of all really pleased that someone is interested in their language. The couple took her and some school friends on a picnic. And then it’s a final step to really believe it and practice it! How can you suddenly leave off the pleases when you have lived a life where please and thank you are drummed into you from the get go? Or how can you not be taken aback when asked about your earnings . I do think the Chinese have a deeper appreciation and love for their language than English speakers do. English speakers? I’ll crawl out on a limb and say. Mandarin has resisted the influence of foreign languages while English has given and taken from lots of languages around the world. hearing a newcomer’s reaction offers a chance to consider your language in a different light . Have you had any feedback on the book from fluent Mandarin speakers? What’s been their reaction ? Oh. The Norman Conquest in 1066 implanted English with half of its modern vocabulary from French. When talking about “I love you. We do what we can. be it studying the language or trying to understand the culture. like it had happened yesterday.com/chinarealtime/2011/06/29/eight-questions-deborah-fallows-dreaming-in-chinese/tab/print/ 7/1/2011 8:22:09 AM . [during which] the husband asked his wife to “please” pass the water . But I’m not alone ! Many of my Chinese friends say even they get rusty with characters if they don’t keep up with them. The good news. Mao introduced simplified characters.

the native-speaker teachers of Mandarin.WSJ I’ve been to a Confucius Institute program in Indiana . please contact Dow Jones Reprints at 1. and the cultural programs brought to the town.com http://blogs. Inc. I think people should be aware of the content of the courses and the context of all classrooms where their young children study (and older students should take that responsibility on themselves) – be it science . As for the “communist agenda” and propaganda. history. they appreciate the sponsorship.China Real Time Report .Eight Questions for Deborah Fallows. Critical awareness of Chinese language teaching is no particular exception. All Rights Reserved This copy is for your personal.com/chinarealtime/2011/06/29/eight-questions-deborah-fallows-dreaming-in-chinese/tab/print/ 7/1/2011 8:22:09 AM . I’ve visited their spectacular new headquarters in Beijing.800-843-0008 or visit www. religion. Author of 'Dreaming in Chinese' . – Melissa Powers Page 3 Copyright 2008 Dow Jones & Company. non-commercial use only. Distribution and use of this material are governed by our Subscriber Agreement and by copyright law. I’ve heard people enthusiastically praise the programs in their communities. or foreign language.wsj. I’ve heard people voice the concern you raised. djreprints. For non-personal use or to order multiple copies.

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