Mandarin For “Dummies” – A Proposal
Way back in junior high school, I had read an article which profiled the skill sets of students admitted into Ivy League universities, most notably Harvard and Yale. It was determined that a significant number of Ivy bound American kids had learned Mandarin, a language that was, as the article conveyed, reserved for only the smartest of youngsters, those shining stars who had been destined for academic elitism since birth. As I had perceived it, Mandarin- like Harvard or Yale- was definitely not in the cards for people like me.
But, truth be told, my preteen life was showing signs of hope. I’d moved up in the world, no longer confined to the “retard room” with a thick stack of gray tracing paper, a gum-slapping aide and a hydroencephalitic boy who drooled constantly. In fact, I’d been placed into a gifted program, where I was instead encouraged to dream up inventions, classify rocks, and attempt socializing with a few other “special” youngsters. I was also scribbling poems, reams of them, for in-class recitation. Still, I was a gangly, left-handed thumb-sucker and a behavioral nightmare from a broken, chaotic home in an isolated town. I was also attempting to compensate, in the worst ways possible, for a learning hurdle which was initially known as “she can’t write” and much later revealed to me as “a form of dyslexia.” No way would I ever go to college. No way would I learn Chinese.
In 2010, most of us hopefully know that those who are labeled learning-disabled or behaviorally challenged- whether it be autism, ADHD, dyslexia, OCD, etc.- aren’t necessarily “dummies” or “disabled” at all. In many cases, it’s just the opposite. For instance, one family relative of mine has Aspergers, and while he may not be able to hold down a good job or lengthy conversation at this point in his life (although I believe otherwise), he can take apart your entire computer and put it back together again with incredible speed. He is, by some measures, a genius. So, it is 2010, and we are evolved, aware human beings now, right? Back in the late 1980s, not so much.
High school, as the saying goes, was torture. By eleventh grade I was batting straight Fs, earned the most in-school suspensions in my class, and had already enjoyed a vacation at a boot camp for troubled youth. Things quickly went from bad to worse. By senior year, I’d been kicked out of my father’s house and was informed quite directly that I would likely not graduate with my class- or at all…
It took one random person to believe otherwise- a retired teacher who single-handedly pulled me toward that diploma- and my life began to turn around. Under his tutelage, I developed new systems of learning in the quiet of a library while being encouraged to focus less on my shortcomings and more on my strengths. Against the odds, I graduated with my high school class while living independent of my parents and working full-time. Still, college was definitely not happening. And Chinese? I’d probably have better luck digging a hole to Beijing.
As life would have it, I made it to college- albeit a few years later than some of my peers and not without bumps along the way- excelling across the board while working as a bartender and writing tutor in Manhattan. The irony. It was in college, at a public university, that I decided to give the “Ivy-league only” Mandarin Chinese a try- a language that had appealed to me as kaleidoscopic symphony, an opera of angles and lines. And, much like the poetry I had grown up reading and reciting, Mandarin felt instantly right. It calmed anxieties, fueled curiosity and, within my personal framework of learning, made perfect sense. Sure, Mandarin was very difficult for me- I’m still struggling to learn it. But, I could never say the same about French. French was impossible. Eventually, I made the move to China and then, to grad school. In Mandarin, as in poetry, I had finally found my own path through memory, cadence and tone. Through the rhythm of a character.
Much like other common learning disabilities, dyslexics are visual thinkers who have a unique relationship to sound and an ability to perceive using all of the senses. Right-brained people in general are known to be visual-spatial learners- unfortunately, they are also the ones who most frequently live with negative labels attached to their minds. It is also often said that dyslexics have great difficulty processing language. But, if you consider it another way, that assumption would have to depend solely on the context in which “language” is defined. For instance, if language is conveyed in rhythm and metaphor- like it is in Dickinson’s “Hope is a Thing of Feathers,”- a dyslexic or other learning-disabled person may come away with a very rich and uncommon understanding of the poem itself. I would also argue that the same applies with Chinese- a language revealed in a series of logographs, delivered like a poem or a song.
If it wasn’t for that retired high-school teacher who had encouraged the exploration of possibility instead of insisting that I be and do like everyone else, I probably never would have made it to college. Come to think of it, I probably wouldn’t have made it to thirty. And, if it wasn’t for gravitating toward two unlikely subjects- Mandarin and poetry- I certainly wouldn’t have continued on to China, to grad school and… at some point in the future… hopefully…a doctorate. I love learning now. Lately, I’ve been thinking about this narrative a lot- it is one that has managed to define my life before, now, and after. In doing so, I often find myself considering the kids out there today who, even in 2010, may find themselves living under names like “learning disabled” or “special” or “dumb” or “crazy” or “hopeless.” Where will they end up? Will they all be as fortunate as I have been?
It is more than apparent that we need to boost our Mandarin programs in this country. But, who are the BEST candidates to actually grasp the language and stick with it? Is it the so-called Ivy League-bound Einsteins hidden away at $40,000 a year prep schools? Or, the overachieving math whizzes in Sucktown, USA? Or, could it be the kid with Aspergers or dyslexia or autism- the kid who thinks in pictures and remembers in pitch? I don’t have the answer, nor could I find a single study examining the correlation between right-brained, so-called learning disabled individuals and their ability to comprehend Mandarin or at least, their ability to like studying it (the second point- to like Mandarin- is very important). What if we threw those kids a few Chinese characters instead of simplifying their options both in school and in life? What if we gave it a shot, the old college try? What if we’re confusing ineptitude with aptitude?
Who knows what’s possible?
There appears to be some promise to my tentative conclusion. Check out this study from 1971, “American Children with Reading Problems Can Easily Learn to Read English Represented by Chinese Characters”. It is, however, the only concrete research that I’ve been able to find so far. Dissertation, anyone?