Andrei Marks · May 25, 2008

After reading Barry Farber’s book, I became much more interested in linguistics and in language study. Unfortunately Columbia had no linguistics major, and my freshman schedule didn’t allow any time for Mandarin, which I had decided would be my first target. So I started with Russian instead.

Thanks to some wonderful teachers (Thank you Natalya and Dzhon!) my Russian study was fun, and I feel like I did come out with a novice’s command of it after two years. However, I think that I hadn’t really absorbed the proper way to study language. I still treated it more in terms of an academic class, and because of a busy schedule and the standard distractions of freshman and sophomore year, I didn’t immerse myself in it like I should have. But one lasting thing that Russian gave me was a deep respect for grammar. Spoken Latin, that was how I always thought of it. Declensions and conjugations are fine and dandy on paper, but when you need to do it on the fly, yikes.

But in 2004, during the summer of my sophomore year, I went to Beijing to study Mandarin for three months, and this radically altered my perception of my language abilities. I remembered nothing from my Hong Kong International School Mandarin classes, with the exception of how to write 我, 你, 他, and 她, and a joke about the numbers. So two weeks before I left I started going through a textbook on my own, and then I finally touched down in Beijing.

I was living alone, had a tutor three hours a day, class another three hours a day, and no English speaking friends. Haha, no good friends at all, really. It wasn’t a college program, rather my classes were in a small language school where half of my peers were 30+ year old Europeans looking to improve their Mandarin, or equally old Korean and Japanese women, whose husbands were working in Beijing. There was a handful of young Korean and Japanese kids my age as well, but there was no way we could communicate.

So my days were spent studying Chinese, beginning the moment I woke up and drilled flashcards on the way to school, and then hours and hours after class reviewing characters and texts. I lived exactly how I should have lived if I’d wanted to study a language. It’s funny how I can look back at that time and still rave about it, but it’s the truth. I still remember the moment when everything actually clicked.

The whole program was arranged through a travel agency, and the manager was the typical sort of Chinese middle aged business man. During the first few weeks of my stay there, I could not understand him for the life of me, not even simple sentences, because he spoke so fast and spoke not at all clearly. The other workers in their office, especially the women, had crystal clear voices and I had no problem communicating with them, at least within the limits of my Chinese at that time. After 7 weeks of study, I went on vacation (to Inner Mongolia and the Northeast) for a week and a half, and then came back for the last stretch of Beijing study. The manager took me out to dinner one day, and lo and behold, I could freaking understand him! It was as if he’d taken elocution lessons or something. And I started hanging out with the younger kids in my class, because I could actually talk to them and get to know them. Granted, we weren’t talking about politics or quantum physics, but we were all at the level where the conversation wasn’t permeated by awkward silences arising from gaping holes in basic language skills.

And so to me that was just wow. That was the first time in my life I was freely communicating in a different language, and it was liberating and fascinating all at the same time.

Next time: More Hits and Misses

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