HomeWayne's WorldLearning the ABC’s of Chinese - Minus the ABC’s

Learning the ABC’s of Chinese – Minus the ABC’s

By Wayne Chan

I am in the midst of an identity crisis – or maybe it’s a panic attack. Even worse, maybe it’s both.

I took my son to Chinese School. For those who may have read some of my earlier columns, you should already know about my Chinese language competency. For those of you that haven’t, let me describe it this way: My Chinese is like a soufflé – it starts out big and beautiful, but once you dig into it you find that there’s not much substance and its filled with hot air.

People have told me that the intonation and phrasing of my Chinese is very good. The problem is that my vocabulary would put a four year old to shame.

I am the first to admit my limitations when it comes to the Chinese language, which is one of the reasons why we decided to send my son to Chinese school so that he could get a head start. But I’m not about to admit my weaknesses to my own son.

When my wife signed him up for the class, I made it perfectly clear what my responsibilities would be – I would take him to and from class. I would sit with him during class to make sure he paid attention. But I made it perfectly clear – I was not about to teach him myself or be a teacher’s aid. We had an agreement. We had a pact.

I knew there was a problem the minute we sat down to class. The teacher immediately started directing the parents on what she wanted us to do to help while we were in session. Every word the teacher said was in Chinese. Every utterance. Even what she wrote on the chalkboard…all Chinese. I’m sure people could tell that we were father and son by the same distant expression we had on our faces.

Oh sure, I understood a few things. She started out by introducing herself, told us she was excited to be here, and then asked us to open our workbooks. After that, yada, yada, yada. She could have been telling us to run for our lives to escape a marauding pack of killer cocker spaniels, but you’d never know it by the way that I was frantically flipping through the workbook trying to get some inkling as to what she was talking about.

What is a father to do when his young son asks him, “Daddy, what is she saying? What does she want me to do?”.

As I was as clueless as he, the only thing I could come up with was, “Look, if you’re not going to pay attention, I’m certainly not going to tell you!”

They say that in order to overcome a traumatic experience, the average person must go through the five stages of resolution: (1) denial, (2) bargaining, (3) anger, (4) despair, and (5) acceptance. You could certainly see me going through each of these stages whenever I responded to the teacher’s questions.

Denial – “Yes, I’d be happy to answer that question, but my ears are still ringing after going to a heavy metal concert last night and I can’t hear you. It was so totally rad.”

Bargaining – “I’d be happy to answer that question if you’d first answer my question: Why is there air?”
Anger – “Why are you asking me this question?!? I’m only the driver! Please call my wife. We had a pact.”

Despair – “I’m sorry. I can’t answer your question. It brings up painful memories from my childhood.”

Acceptance – “Excuse me? This is Chinese class? I’m sorry, wrong class. C’mon son, let’s go.”

Hmm…that last one seems like I skipped over acceptance and went back around to denial. Well, four out of five’s not bad.

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  1. Hi Wayne
    I went to Chinese school when I was very young and learned very little Cantonese. Later studied Mandarin and now can speak useful Mandarin.

    Focus should be on learning dialogues for real life situations, or you will forget everything if you remember any at all.

    Have taught dozens of students and they all agree that using a practical approach is most useful.

    Do find you an instructor who willl use books that teach spoken Chinese and I believe there is a better chance at success.


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