Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Beginner Chinese Lessons

By Lín Tiān Jié  林天(Kevin)

It was like drinking water from a firehose,” I sighed, when Ruth asked how the first day of class went.
It was so much, so fast.”

I just returned from my first morning of class as a full-time student in 11 years. I'd just finished my Intensive Reading and Oral Chinese lessons. My brain was numb. To say the lessons were difficult would be an understatement. Although we enrolled in “Beginner Chinese” classes, all but one or two of the students had at least a small amount of exposure to the language. Several mentioned having studied in another class that apparently comes before beginner Chinese. Most rattled off long sentences using grammar we hadn't yet been introduced to. 

Thankfully, I managed to recognize my new Chinese name when the teacher called on me without too much of a delay. I decided I needed one that wasn't a partial transliteration of my English name, so out with Kai Bo Wen and in with my teacher's recommendation: Lín Tiān Jié 林天 (means Forrest, 天 means Sky/Heaven, and means distinguished or looking toward).

What have we gotten ourselves into?” asked one of my classmates.

Between two lessons, we were expected to have grasped and retained close to 40 phrases by the end of class. After the teacher wrote a character once, she rarely wrote the pinyin (phonetic spelling) for it again unless asked to do so. Thankfully I already knew how to say two-thirds of them. But reading and writing are another story. Although our Character Writing class won't begin until next week (we have Wednesday through Friday off because of Ramadan), homework for Oral class involved writing 20 of the characters ten times apiece, plus writing out five sentences using the characters. Good thing I have a rudimentary understanding of stroke order from previous tutor times.

There were 17 students in all. Five Americans, five Sudanese, two Koreans, one Canadian, one Iranian, one Dutch, one Mexican and one Indian. Today, the second day of class, none of the Sudanese showed up. Perhaps they were preparing for Ramadan.

Even though the pace was fast for most of the first two lessons, it slowed a bit during the second day. One of our more overwhelmed classmates decided to slow things down by asking the teacher to write the pinyin for the sentences she'd written on the board or to translate phrases he didn't understand. But I felt particularly bad for my Mexican classmate. When he didn't understand the teacher's rapid explanation of how to say different numbers in class, the teacher asked, “Do you understand English?”

A little bit,” he said.

I can't imagine having to use your second language to understand a teacher's directions to learn a third. Yet, that's where 10 of my classmates sit. 

So, two days down. We have a long way to go, but at least we speak English.

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