Chinese Resources

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Chinese as a tool for...

I would be curious to know how many times over the past two years I've had to remind my classmates (and teachers) that I didn't receive an undergraduate degree in Chinese. My guess would be more times that I can count on ten fingers. I've never taken a class on the Chinese classics and, until recently, was never asked to translate anything... minus the times when friends or family members saw/heard something that fit their description of what Chinese probably was and asked for my "expert" opinion.

My undergraduate degree was actually in Global Studies, a sort of modern day International Studies degree that focused on globalization and global systems (political, economic, cultural and otherwise). While I had fair share of core classes, my own focus was on how communication and communication systems are affected by globalization and global trends. One point that came up time and time again during undergrad was the idea that languages are a tool for conversation and conveying meaning. 

While I will not deny the strong bond that exists between language and culture, I feel like certain cultural elements become stripped away when a language flirts with or has reached lingua franca status. At that point, the bond between a particular language and its culture MUST be broken to allow non-native speakers a chance to imprint their own culture onto the language, and on a more basic level use  the language to communicate. Chinese, in my opinion, is in the process of making this transition. 

Today, however, as a language teacher and non-native speaker of Chinese I find myself reflecting on the idea that language is a tool. While I don't think my undergraduate program missed the mark or got anything wrong, there are certain elements of this concept that can be greatly expanded upon in reagards to second language acquisition.

As a language student the idea of having a tool for conversation is incredibly important. In initial stages (especially when already living in the target language environment) this often means learning the necessary language to survive and interact with people in the environment. Buying things, hailing a cab, asking for directions, going to the bank... these things are often necessary for living in the target language environment. But what happens once you've passed to the next level, or you've already achieved the ability to successfully communicate (here I am referring to conversational fluency) in the target language? 

In other words, what happens next?  

I left the title of this blog post open ended because I think the "what happens next" should be very individualized... which is really the best part about language being used as a tool. You can can use the tool in any way you want. For me, this notion means trying to figure out a way to live our lives (or at least part of our lives) as we might have done in our home country or in our native language. There should be no reason why you cannot strive toward using your second language to fulfill your own interests and needs. If you like cooking, for example, than what is stopping you from taking cooking classes in your target language, or picking up a cook book in your target language? Interested in music? What is to stop you from writing songs, or taking music lessons in your target language? Interested in sports? Go do that in your target language. Interested in just about anything, than go and try to find a way to do that, or learn more about it in your target language.

So often, language blogs seem to spend all of their time focused on the process of learning a language, but I'm beginning to wonder what negative side effects that might cause/create. Instead, what would happen if learning Chinese stopped becoming the goal, and instead became a tool to reach your goal?

In that case you really wouldn't have a choice, you'd simply have to learn use it. 


  1. Interestingly, I just lectured on English as the lingua franca this past week :)

    OK, so I think I see what you are saying about the culture/language bond being broken when you speak about this necessity for second language speakers, but I think as a theoretical idea it is important to acknowledge this as a regional affect and not a whole-scale reality. My point can be illustrated by looking at idioms and metaphors as an example. These linguistic tools are culturally based, often having little or nothing to do with the literal meanings of any of the words involved.

    The ability to use idioms and metaphors greatly benefits communication by not only streamlining it, but also allowing for understandings deeper than maybe otherwise possible to express in the language being used. The problem is that because these are culturally based they required a shared experience between the listener and speaker in order for this deeper level of understanding to take place.

    Moving on, your post makes me wonder something about my own Chinese learning process. I always felt that I made more progress studying with you than I did in classes, and I always just assumed it was because with you I had private lessons and so got your full attention instead of having to share a teacher's attention with 10 other people.

    But during this time you also frequently talked about what I wanted to do with Chinese (as a tool) and structured lessons around achieving these goals and so had me doing things like playing games, reading comics, writing that research presentation...what if this was the bigger factor in my progress? I want to note here that it may seem from this little tidbit that my problem in class was motivation, but I really don't feel like that was a major issue. I NEEDED Chinese to finish my research goals and graduate (something I've been working on for 10 years now) and feel very strongly motivated to do.

    不好意思 - tldr version - I think a change in perception like you suggest here would make learning Chinese easier and faster :)

  2. Can you elaborate on how you think a language disentangles with it's culture (when becoming a lingua franca)?
    I still feel there are strong bonds to the original culture, as Malcolm Gladwell makes the case when he writes about how the korean airline changed their crew language to English and thereby drastically reduced their accident reate. (Tipping Point or Outliers, I forgot).

  3. I totally agree that while learning Chinese, you should do the activities in Chinese such as doing cooking classes. But IMO, that should not be the goal of learning Chinese. I think that fluency in Chinese is a perfectly fine goal, and that things you enjoy (cooking, sports, competitive pie eating) should be used as vehicles to achieve fluency.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think that we are actually in agreement, it is just that the lens with which we are looking at the topic of fluency is slightly different. As a language teacher and language learner, I find the idea of "fluency" incredibly hard to define. For many second language learners fluency can create a lot of stress... the sudden urge to understand everything you encounter, and a large focus on pattern drills and memorizing lots of useless vocabulary in the never ending quest to understand everything. Cause we all know that If you don't understand something you're not fluent... right? Brushing the task of defining fluency aside for a moment, let's look at the "tool" approach. By taking the language and using it as a tool, something we might call tasked based learning in teaching theory, the stress is put onto those other vehicles, as you say, to help us to solve problems, create new things, meet goals, and (eventually) reach a high level of fluency. The key point, I think, being that you achieve a high level of language mastery without focusing on "language" as some object that is removed from all the things in life that have helped to shape it in the first place.

  4. your experience is quite interesting and the way you narrated about the Chinese learning class was impressive. to become professional translator even more skill is required


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