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Studying Chinese: Tired? E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by Bro Fan
Alright. All of us here are well-aware just how loquacious the average Xi'an cabbie can be, certainly far more aware of that, than the correct spelling of loquacious. He’s no doubt the first guy you had your real didao Chinese conversation with - aside from your teacher of course, who has already gone through 40 years of having us dim-witted foreigners asking the same basic questions after completing unit 3.

I tell you, there’s a limit of just how busy or tired someone can be. But upon starting to learn the lingo here, ni mang ma? ni lei ma? are drilled into you as if this was your key to the conversational elite that overpopulate this country. That, I guess, or Chinese people are constantly tired, or busy, or both, like a monolithic pillar of cultural understanding. Or perhaps they just have great comeback lines to those questions that you never really appreciate, simply because you don’t have a bloody clue what anyone’s saying to you. Imagine, all that scything wit going to waste. Frittered away on the ears of another laowai obsessed with what I’m doing, or whether I want to drink tea.

But why is it, when you learn Chinese, it’s quite literally months before you learn something actually vaguely useful?

Whilst chanting “Ma (surprised look) Maaa (slowly tilt head back) Maaaaaaa (furrow eyebrows) Ma (look triumphant) for weeks on end may be terrific fun when you’re 5 and surrounded by 104 other snot-nosed kids in a classroom, the entertainment value might fade a little for those who have something better to do than spend their evenings watching cartoons or vomiting up milk powder.

Tones are fairly important, fair enough. Without them, you’re pretty much screwed. But it just seems so ridiculous for vaguely intelligent human beings to have spent nearly 2 weeks in intensive language study being able to say precisely bugger all, aside from asking someone if they are tired. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being tired).

Surely, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, can you not just go easy on the mamaamaaama’s and teach people something useful that will actually make a difference to their life? Basic verbs, basic vocab, the glue that sticks it all together - allow them at least to learn how to ask for more tea before beating them incessantly with the big tone stick for the rest of their miserable learning basic Chinese lives??

Just recently I seem to have stumbled over a few poor sods who have been sent up to Xi'an on a ‘language training’ camp, a whole eight days of Chinese tuition. “Six hours a day for like, two weeks” they beam “and we get paid. Pretty sweet!”. Yes, but can you ask where the toilet is? No? Right then.

It’s no scoop that Chinese can be a real headache to get a grip on - but this bad rap is in no way helped by unrealistic expectations on behalf of corporate HR departments, or indeed the Neolithic teaching methods espoused by most educational institutions. Perhaps if both sides picked up their game a little - people realise that learning the old zhongwen is going to be a bit more taxing than brushing up old A-level French vocab, and the new ‘education professionals’ concede that rote, rote and more rote learning isn’t necessarily the fastest way to get competent in a foreign tongue - then we might start getting somewhere.

And finally we can share a hearty laugh with our taxi driver, and appreciate his charming wit as he informs you exactly why he is so tired these days.

Our valuable Editor Bro Fan has been with us since Sunday, 06 June 2010.

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