Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Taste of Living Differently

Today the Michel Thomas Advanced Mandarin Chinese Course arrived. It follows on from the Foundation one I'm learning at the moment. I've just finished CD 5 out of 8 and want to keep going until I get to China because if I were to stop all that I've learnt will start drift out of my mind. If I manage to get through the Advanced course I intend to go on to the last one in the series: the 'Vocabulary Extension' course.

I am finding Mandarin Chinese very interesting, strange and 'too good' (the phrase the Chinese use for wonderful). I like the musicality of the sound. There are four main tones: a rising note like a question ('blue finger up'); a tone that falls then rises ('red v for victory'); a short note down ('black finger down') and a steady note, rather like the ringing of a bell ('green thumb out'). There is also one that is just a sound with no tone ('closed fist').

Each tone is introduced by the teacher, Harold Goodman, with an associated hand action and colour to anchor it in the brain, and alongside this he tells a vivid story incorporating the word. This helps it to stick as well. I have no aptitude for languages but even I find it a surprisingly easy, entertaining and quick way to learn. I've already used the method (with the late Michel Thomas himself) to learn German and Spanish just a couple of days before departing on a trip, and each time found it gave me a useful working knowledge in just 8 hours. This time I'm taking it more slowly in the hope that more goes in - and stays in.

Mandarin is completely different from Western languages: word order is important, but in (big) compensation there are no feminine or masculine forms or verb endings. I think it is because it is so different that I am enjoying it so much. I have to think in an entirely new way and the experience is invigorating and liberating.

I have this pleasurable feeling of discovery in everything I come across about China. For instance, I have just finished reading 'What Does China Think?' and again I find myself considering the world in an entirely new way. The Chinese, Mark Leonard says, believe in the strength of the meritocracy and question that democracy is necessarily 'a good thing'.

There was one analogy in the book which I liked enormously: Fang Ning of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says that in China it is as if the chef is fixed and the customers choose from an รก la carte menu; whereas in western democracies the chef is chosen but he brings with him a fixed menu of ideas and policies.

Some parts of China are experimenting with new social decision methods involving referendums, think tanks and surveys. In cities like Chongqing (population 30 million) the people are asked to vote in their choice of public legislation from a 'menu' of possibilities.

Another prevalent idea is that economic reform should come before political reform and they believe that all such reform should be incremental.

They also believe in the sovereignty of state and do not made trade and aid conditional on humanitarian reform. This makes them very popular with non-democratic developing countries.

It is such an alien world; in a way I feel I am already seeing and investigating a new landscape without moving from my desk. I keep having to think again about things that I thought I knew. Now I want to investigate how these ideas came about - and for this I need to do a little delving into history...


Anonymous Min Min (Learn Chinese Everyday) said...

Learning Chinese is fun and challenging, especially writing the Chinese characters. I have a free Chinese learning website, - learn a Chinese character a day. If you are interested in learning how to write Chinese characters, check it out at I hope you find my website useful.


Thu Sep 24, 05:37:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thank you Min Min - excellent site! I like the way you can hear how the characters sound too!

I have just ordered a book on writing Chinese, but shall look at your site once I've learnt the basics.

Thu Sep 24, 08:45:00 am  
Blogger JL said...

About time about the history of the place. When you get there, your best bet is to know not the language but the HISTORY of whatever place you are going to.
There is where the real stories are, not some White man's precious underwear.

As it's said in the US, 'An Englishman is someone who thinks 100 miles is a long way; An American is someone who thinks 100 years is a long time".

I've been thinking about you lately.

Thu Sep 24, 04:49:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Hello again, JL! Yes, the history is important, and I have learnt a little - it's what I started with. But gradually I feel I've got a better sense of place now and feel ready to learn in more detail...and fascinating it is too.

Thu Sep 24, 07:53:00 pm  

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