Double Language Immersion

Chinese class in Sigang Community Center

Chinese class in Sigang Community Center

If you want to learn a language, the best advice is to immerse yourself. You learn and retain language much faster when you are constantly hearing it and needing to recall the new words you have learned. Living in Taiwan presents me with the opportunity to finally learn Mandarin Chinese the best way possible.

When I chose to move to Taiwan, I had several languages to choose from that I could learn. A few people suggested I learn the Atayal indigenous language of my heritage. Most suggested I learn Mandarin Chinese. After all, it is the language that would allow me to communicate with over a billion people in the world. Almost everyone in Southern Taiwan speaks Taiwanese as their mother language, so it would be helpful to learn that as well. The Taiwanese language is harder to learn than Mandarin, because there are 7 unique tones in their vowels to Mandarin’s 4. These tones are not easy for Westerners to distinguish when people speak them. It takes much practice and an expanded ability to listen. Don’t get me started on what it takes to learn to read and write in Mandarin. The Taiwanese do not have their own written language. They learn to read and write Mandarin characters regardless of what they prefer to speak.

I did not know what structures I would have in place to teach me Mandarin once I moved to Taiwan. My 7 yr-old son, Johan, is enrolled in Kindergarten, so he is currently learning Traditional Mandarin Chinese. I requested duplicate workbooks, so I could learn with him. The first part in learning traditional Mandarin is learning the “be, pe, me, fe” or “zhùyīn fúhào” system of recognizing consonant and vowel sounds, or phoenetic transliteration. This is used to teach people how to pronounce the Chinese written characters. Currently, I am learning these “be, pe, me, fe” characters, and my wife has been helping me to learn a few words a day.

The community center is an unassuming small building tucked away in an old residential part of town.

The community center is an unassuming small building tucked away in an old residential part of town.

Traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, so this is the language Johan and I are learning. In 1956, China presented an updated form of Mandarin language that used fewer strokes. The purpose was to make the language easier to learn by the masses, and to reduce illiteracy in China. Simplified Chinese is the written language used in China and Singapore, and it seems to be the form that will be taught in foreign language classes in the United States. Fortunately, it is easier for someone who learned Traditional Chinese characters to read Simplified Chinese than the other way around.

Today, I had a unique opportunity for double language immersion. My mother-in-law took me with her to Mandarin Chinese class. This is a class taught by a volunteer  in a local community center to women in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, who never had an opportunity for a formal education in Mandarin. When they were schoolchildren, Taiwan was a very poor place. These women were to put to work to help their families to survive, and sometimes, to earn money to put the family’s sons through school.

Everyone, including the teacher, spoke Taiwanese to each, so I understood nothing that was said… until Mandarin was spoken. Characters were drawn on the board, and I copied them. The “be, pe, me, fe” characters were written next to the traditional Mandarin characters on the board to help with the pronunciation. Unfortunately, I have a lot of catching up to do on the “be, pe, me, fe.” I did pick up a few new words, and now know what they look like in writing. More importantly, I got into the mindset of writing characters in a way I never had to before. In learning Mandarin, it seems that the artistic or visual side of my brain is used to connect with language and meaning, like I never experienced before. It may seem hard at first, but after a little while, it actually feels somewhat exhilarating to use and stretch different parts of my mind. I guess I still have areas in my head collecting cobwebs, but one never knows until they start using them. Sitting in the large aluminum warehouse, listening to unfamiliar conversations over the steady drumming of the heavy rain shower outside, I realized how fortunate I was. I wasn’t learning Mandarin with a group of foreigners. I was learning with local women who cherished this opportunity at formal language education, and I was getting a double dose of language topped with an ample side dish of Taiwanese culture.

I understand the value of language. The ability to communicate gives a person great value in the world. That is a big reason I am here; to provide this to my children. Now I have hope that I will also have the fluency to become a better bridge between cultures.

The Mandarin Chinese teacher and her student (my mother-in-law).

The Mandarin Chinese teacher and her student (my mother-in-law).


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