Thursday, December 31, 2015

Hacking Chinese

I was recently asked an unusual question: What was my biggest non-technical hack? How had I found a workaround or trick that let me do something that ordinarily wouldn't be possible or allowed.

That made me think. The best example I can think of involves the study of Chinese. I was able to study the language in a way that reaped major benefits for my career and overseas lifestyle in just six months.

Backstory: I arrived in Taiwan in early 1993 to study Mandarin and continue an overseas adventure that had started in London two years prior. While Chinese grammar and syntax is quite simple, Western students are often tripped up by two extremely difficult elements: Tones in the spoken language and characters in the written language. Most curricula emphasize the latter through rote memorization (necessary for reading) and stroke order (necessary for writing). Writing/memorization exercises take up 75% of a student’s time.

Speaking was given short shrift in many programs at the time -- it’s difficult to effectively teach tones and vocabulary is always taught in conjunction with reading/writing. This really slows progress, as a single term takes extra long to learn, thanks to the emphasis on learning the characters as well as the spoken form.

The result is many people who have formally studied Chinese for a year or more are unable to effectively talk in Mandarin, but will be able to understand characters and even write calligraphy. I had actually taken this approach in the United States in high school and college for two years total, but only knew the words for numbers and a few simple phrases when I arrived in Taipei.

My "hack" was to skip writing and concentrate on the spoken language, with a minimal amount of attention devoted to learning characters. In other words, instead of spending 25% of my time on verbal exercises and practice, I spent 90% of my time on learning how to speak Mandarin.

 My first experiment involved self-immersion, living with a family on the outskirts of Taipei, where I thought I could have a chance to practice talking. It didn’t work -- the children in the family wanted mainly to speak English, and the parents spoke a different dialect that is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin. The experiment failed. I learned almost nothing.

I then decided to take formal classes. Most Western students studied at local universities, but I found a private language school that didn’t force character study at the early levels, and had teachers that really emphasized spoken Mandarin (to the point that no English was spoken in class).

Ten hours of study in school and hours of additional practice every day on the streets of Taipei really worked. I was intensely focused on getting the tones and pronunciation right. Within two months I had the local accent and tones down cold, to the point where some people hearing me answer the phone initially supposed I was local. Within six months I had learned enough vocabulary and grammar to become a highly proficient speaker. I could barely read and my stroke order was positively embarrassing, but it didn’t matter -- I was interacting with local people at a very high level on a face-to-face level and really becoming immersed in social life there.

 The proof of my competency came in mid-1994, less than a year after I had restarted my studies, when I was invited to take part in a highly competitive job interview for a news editor at one of Taiwan’s largest television networks. The interview was completely in Mandarin with three station executives. I passed with flying colors, beating out 300 other applicants. A few years later, I wrote and composed a Mandarin song for my rock band that became a minor underground hit in Taiwan and Hong Kong. It wasn't fine calligraphy, but it made it possible for me to interact with people and improve my own career.

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