Recently, I was given an opportunity of a lifetime. I have been an adjunct professor at the University of St. Francis for over a half dozen years. St. Francis offers its students an opportunity to take a course in conjunction with a trip overseas. Most of the time, they have gone to Western Europe. However, this year, they decided to go to China and asked me to teach the class. Since I have a background in religion, history, and philosophy, I enthusiastically accepted the offer. When the administrator asked me to develop a possible itinerary, I jumped at it as if I were Chinese carp jumping at a morsel of food in an imperial garden. In addition to the regular must see spots like Hong Kong, Beijing, the Great Wall, Xi'an, Guilin, I proposed that we would include Tibet. I was anxious to return to that mysterious and exciting place having recently been there. In the past month or so, I have busied myself with writing the course syllabus, making a PowerPoint presentation, selecting a text, etc.
My wife observed my frantic activity level and decided to do her part in preparing for the trip to China since she would be accompanying me. She made lists of what to take, checked the expiration dates on our passports, and looked into our inoculation records. Then one morning over coffee, she said, "I think that it would be nice to learn to speak Chinese for our trip. We have traveled all over but haven't been able to converse with the locals in their language. Wouldn't it be nice to speak Mandarin?" I knobbed affirmatively and dismissed it as just talk. Not only is Chinese an extremely difficult language for Westerners to learn, we would be in China in the coming Spring. The notion of quickly picking up Mandarin Chinese was a nice thought but completely out of the question. I settled back to work on the doable aspects of the trip like fine-tuning the syllabus and tweaking the PowerPoint presentation.
A week passed, and I was sitting at my computer late one evening when my wife greeted me with some strange sounding pronouncement. I responded with confusion in my voice. My first thought was that she had just had a stroke and couldn't speak clearly. I asked her to repeat what she had said. Back came the same sounding reply. I asked her to explain. She proudly announced that she had just asked me, "Excuse me; do you speak Mandarin Chinese?" Well, I can't be sure that is what she said since I don't speak Mandarin, but she was confident that a native speaker would have understood her.
My wife had purchased a 6-CD set of how to speak Mandarin Chinese-in ten days! According to the material accompanying the CDs, my wife will be speaking Chinese by the time you read this article. Now the pressure is on me. I struggled with four previous languages in my academic career, and now I'm going to be an adult learner of Chinese. To add to my discomfort level, my wife seems to be picking up Chinese like a youngster would, and she is enjoying it. Whenever our paths cross, out spurts some new phrase and a pregnant pause waiting for me to respond in Mandarin. I have zero self-efficacy regarding learning Chinese.
There is no way that I am going to learn Chinese in ten days. Even learning that language by the time of the trip would be for me an impossible task. What will the folks at the university think? Will this affect future teaching assignments? I can hear them now, "You know, Campbell's wife is fluent in Chinese, and he's illiterate. Perhaps, we need to find a replacement for him."
As I struggle to regain my emotional equilibrium, I will try to learn some Mandarin before our trip. However, why waste the time learning, "Excuse me; do you speak Mandarin Chinese?" Even if I am able to master that question, I am only setting myself up for more frustration. I can see it now; I greet a Chinese person on the Great Wall with my question about whether he speaks Mandarin. Then what do I do when he seizes upon that to engage this Westerner in a conversation in Mandarin? Perhaps, I should try to learn, "Excuse me; I am learning disabled in Mandarin. Do you speak any English?
This article appeared in the Dixon Telegraph on 12/28/04.