Mandarin Through Immersion


BJ duck

Mandarin through immersion: bringing a language to life

“You know the parts of the body in Chinese really well,” my Chinese qi gong doctor says, as she discusses where qi - or energy - is blocked in my body.

Anyone who’s ever been to China will know that the Chinese are still somewhat incredulous when a foreigner, or laowai as they like to refer to us, can speak their language. The slightest effort, like giving an address in Chinese to a taxi driver, reaps an avalanche of compliments about the level of your Chinese.

But this time, I know I have the body parts mastered! I learned them by repetition - not the sort of agonising rote learning I went through at school learning Latin, French, Spanish and German in the early eighties – no, this vocab was acquired through physical pain. I was not in language class when I learned how to name all the parts of my body, but in yoga class - with a Chinese yogi. That’s when they became forever engrained.

Trading languages in situ.

As I lie on the doctor’s massage table, I realise I have quite a few ‘areas of expertise’ in Mandarin. My vegetable seller and I have been trading languages for years, in fact my local market is full of Chinese teachers willing to train me. Our Mandarin exchanges are now smooth; sometimes I’m even asked to interpret for other laowais as they struggle to find ingredients they can’t point to. 

It was with my ayi (housekeeper) that I honed my cooking vocab. With three children hungry for European food at home, I taught my ayi how to cook French, and dare I say it, British cuisine. We loved cooking together and by the end of our nine years there had been the most wonderful transfer of knowledge between us – words for European cuisine.

Somehow, when you learn vocab in situ – it sticks. Maybe it’s because we have physical gestures to go with the word – balancing a yoga pose, chopping an onion, reading vegetables off a shopping list – but I think it’s because we get so many chances to repeat a new word. I confused iceberg lettuce and cabbage for so long that I nearly had to change the menu to minimise embarrassment with my veggie lady! 


Language absorption through immersion.

There is no doubt that immersion allows us to absorb a language much faster and less painfully than in class or with self-study. When immersed, we perfect our comprehension and pronunciation as we go about our daily life.  Of course, with Mandarin, there is the added challenge of learning how to write the character – and that’s where vocab lists or flashcards may come into play.

As the doctor’s hands travel around my body, applying pressure and massage, there are moments when it’s more tickle than pain. Giggling, I tell the doctor it tickles. “Itch!” she says proudly in English. Not exactly I think, and the language lover in me starts to explain the difference between ‘tickle’ and ‘itch’ in halting Chinese. By the time she gets it, she’s finished my session and we are pleased with our exchange – words for energy – and I move onto my next Chinese practice session in the taxi on the way home.

Bridget Rooth is just ending her 12-year (over)stay in China! While she’s been in the Middle Kingdom, she’s set up, an online English editing site that helps non-native English writers access professional English editors. She has studied many languages, mastered but a few, and blogs about the English language at her English Editing Blog.


 In-Depth-China      CSA-blog


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