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Expat's Eye
Cover Stories Series 2013> Reviving Handwritten Chinese> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: February 4, 2013 NO. 6 FEBRUARY 7, 2013
Rules of the Tongue
By Valerie Sartor


I believe Chinese teachers here have the best intentions in the world. Schools must measure and assess how students learn, yet evaluating language learning is a particularly slippery slope. It is difficult to assess at any level. As for bilingual students, the slippery slope intensifies, because the speaker deals with two levels of bilingualism, and is assessed, usually from only one linguistic perspective. Promoting bilingual and multilingual learning remains mysterious.

I have been fortunate enough to interview many people, of all ages, linguistic abilities, and homelands. At first I thought I was confusing myself—gathering too much data and casting my net too widely—but this morning, as I lay dozing in a dim hotel room, trying to overcome a migraine, some thoughts fluttered through my pain wracked skull and I realized that by some fortunate circumstance, all these interviews and chats had a kind of prescient organization. Thinking about myself as a Chinese language learner benefits my research, as it gives me a personal perspective on what it takes to really learn a language. Being introspective, I'll start with myself first.

At present I must confess that I don't have what it takes to be the student who excels in Chinese. Basically, I'm too much in love with my own language, English. When I communicate, when I read, and when I write, due to my education, age, and life experience, I want to use my finest linguistic tool, my English language. I communicate in English at a level that conveys very complex and sophisticated thoughts in a style that reflects all the words and grammar structures I have previously absorbed through reading, writing and living. As a scholar, I have a vast wealth of English language resources available to me. To entertain the thought of communicating at this level in Chinese is comical to me. Although research indicates that bilingual fluency can be achieved in 7-10 years, I am absorbed in working and thinking in English. Hence, making an investment, a linguistic investment in Chinese, appears unrealistic. Being diligent, I study, I learn, but I don't put my heart and soul into Chinese. These terms—love, heart and soul—are key in this essay, so be prepared to hear them again.

At university some Mongolians are studying Chinese with me. We're all grinding away at this complex language—or are we? Chinese teachers complain that Mongols regularly prefer not to show up to class. Why do they shirk coming to class? They have no other responsibilities other than to be students. Some people say it is the freedom from parents: They shop and experience new things in China. But far more important I think is the historical, political, cultural, and social reasons. China's famous 5,000 year-old culture is not an asset here.

One of my classmates is a 29-year-old Mongolian. She has a boyfriend who is Inner Mongolian. Her motivation to study is boosted by this man, because he is bilingual and a citizen of China. Yet this couple speaks to each other in Mongolian, not Mandarin. He serves, among other things, as her live-in tutor, and he helps her with Chinese homework, etc. In fact, the two lovers prefer to live in a bubble of Mongol culture. Sometimes she refuses to come to class, saying to me via text: "I just don't feel like going outside today and dealing with those Chinese people."

The best foreign language students have relationships with the Chinese. For example, Namdak confessed that he first came to China with great reservations. "I hated the school and I hated to write Chinese characters. But now I see the benefit of doing all that work." He smiled, but not at me. Namdak had brought his Chinese girlfriend to the interview. She was sitting next to him, silent and shy, listening to us talk. He turned and said to her in fluent Chinese, "I will tell you everything I say, after I finish talking." Then she smiled, looked demurely down. "It is Lili who helps me," Namdak went on to say. "I'd be lost here without her." He gave me a very positive interview, then he rose and left, arm in arm, with his girlfriend.

Valya raged against her Chinese school. "I hated that place, and I was so lonely," she said, sitting back in a plastic chair and smoking. "But the language gave me access to people. I have many Chinese friends, many girlfriends, and I've had Chinese, as well as foreign boyfriends. I need Chinese to be close to all these people, so I've learned it fluently. The language is a life boat to me."

Even Deepak Chopra talks about love in physics. So I have dared her to bring up the 'L' word in my assessment of language learning. Desire is the core of all the things we do and think; without desire, a relationship will wither and die. Without empathy, love, compassion—whatever term you see fit to employ—people will not seek out others, or seek out ways, tools such as Chinese, to communicate their feelings, emotions and thoughts.

The author is an American living in Hohhot, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region

Expats, we need your stories!

If you're an expatriate living or once lived in China and have a story to tell or an opinion to share about any aspect of life here, we are interested in hearing about it. We offer payment for published stories (700-900 words). Submissions may be edited.

Email us at: zanjifang@bjreview.com

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