18 May 2011

Learning Chinese in Two Days

There is an interesting article in the on-line Guardian of 18 May 2011 (here) in which the author, Tom Meltzer, took a course designed to teach him to speak Mandarin Chinese in just two days. (For more about the course, see here.)

Of course, this is quite a bizarre thing to try and do, especially for a language such as Chinese which many people in the West find rather difficult. However, what is interesting is the methodology. For example, the course does not try and teach vocabulary, as that is regarded as a waste of time, and it also does not try and deal with grammar, which is similarly not considered useful. Instead, it trains the learner in the use of a few chunks of language which can be re-used to express a wide range of things.

I would have to agree that learning lots of vocabulary is not helpful. A few years ago, I took a course in Malay run by the Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) here in Brunei, and we were asked to memorise long lists of vocabulary for body parts, vegetables, and modes of transport. This was not helpful. A beginning learner simply does not need to know the Malay for knee or cabbage.

What about grammar? I agree that detailed analysis is not helpful for the learner. But would a little bit of grammatical knowledge help? Some of the comments of this Guardian writer suggest that it would. For example, he claims that, at the end of his two-day course:
I can, however, convert a verb into the past and future tenses
Really? That's pretty impressive! I've been learning Chinese for 35 years now, and I have never found out how to convert a verb into the past and future tenses.

Chinese, of course, does not have tenses, and I would have thought it might have been a good idea if this chap had been told that. (It does have aspect particles, such as the perfective 过 guo and the progressive 着 zhe, but that is something different.)

Nevertheless, despite his lack of awareness about the language he was supposedly learning, it is quite impressive that, at the end of two days, he was confident enough to go and order a meal in Chinese and even try to chat to the waitress, and the focus on practical language skills offered by this course is splendid.