Thursday, February 5, 2015

Teaching and learning Chinese

"YOU are teaching him Chinese?" -- my mother, not impressed by my "mastery" of the language

A few years ago, I tried to teach Greg Chinese. After several sessions ended with one of us losing patience (usually me), we decided that the health of our relationship was more important.

When we tried again late last year, several things were different. Most of them were probably due to my having recently taken elementary German courses. The courses gave me more ideas as to where to start. It also set a more realistic estimate of progress. As well, the course also taught me about possible exercises that could be used to practise vocabulary and grammatical constructs to make learning fun.

We thought at first that following a book, course, or program would be most effective. In the end, we stuck with short sessions, usually over dinner, with me explaining 4-5 words or concepts at a time. The short impromptu sessions were probably more fun than following a program, even if the progress was slower. What we lose in speed, we probably make up in consistency. What we lose in a well thought-out curriculum, we'll hopefully make up in the quality of our experiences.

Coming up with interesting and relevant exercises on the fly kept the sessions much more engaging for both of us. In these exercises, I try to discourage translation. For example, in learning different types of food, an exercise we might do is that I'll list two food items, say: 土豆 and 牛肉, and ask which one he likes more. Or, when learning about clothing, I might give a body part (e.g. 腿 or 手) and ask for an item of clothing for that body part (e.g. 裤子 and 手套). Or I might give him a cartoon character (e.g. Mickey mouse) and asked him to describe a notable body part of that character (黑耳朵). We might talk about directions from the living room to the bathroom, or discuss the items in our immediate vicinity (这是什么?).

There are of course many challenges. As my mother alluded to, while my spoken Chinese is passible, it is at an at-most grade 3 level. My written Chinese is abysmal. Further, because I learned the language as a child, Chinese grammar is as mysterious to me as it is to Greg. It takes a bit of thinking to explain the difference between the two types of negations 没 and 不 (it depends on the tense you want to use, and are not at all like difference between "kein" and "nicht" in German). It takes a great deal more to explain when and when not to use 了, and where that word could be placed. At some point, an investment in a good grammar book will have to be made.

There are also other surprises. Sometimes a friend of mine, another native Chinese speaker with a similar lack of Chinese, would attempt to help me. She is not from the same part of China as I am, and would often correct my "northerner accent". She also chided me for using what she thought was a colloquial term for "arm": 胳膊, which is the official Google translate result, but which she rarely used. We had a debate about how the word "knee" should be pronounced (膝盖), then stared blankly at each other while we tried and failed to figure out what the word for "elbow" was.

My mother might have been right after all.

There are also interesting tidbits about the language that I never really realized as a native speaker. It was strange to Greg that 前天, literally translated as "front day", meant "the day before yesterday", and that 后天 or "back day" meant "the day after tomorrow", suggesting that time flowed "backwards" in Chinese. This was an insight I took a long time to wrap around because 前 also means "before" and 后 also means "after", and it just made sense. To illustrate that it doesn't, Greg emulated the flow of time by walking backwards.

We don't know yet how successful this experiment will be. What I do know for sure is that I'm learning a little more about the nuances of my native language, and reviewing a lot of what has been forgotten over the years.