活�

April 3rd, 2007

I hate language textbooks. I think I’m more than qualified to say that, having spent over half my life either studying or teaching foreign languages (often both at the same time). Last night I sat down to my Chinese study. Opened the textbook to 第ä¹?å?•å…ƒè¯¾å¤–阅读. Got through one piece, an unusually good piece, too:

一�海员在出海�将一�会说�的鹦鹉�给了邻居。新主人�久�现鹦鹉�会说��。他便设法教它一些文明用�,但效果�佳。

有一天,新主人家举行一个大型晚会。没想到,鹦鹉当ç?€å¤§å®¶çš„é?¢è¯´äº†ä¸€å¤§å †è„?è¯?。主人怒ä¸?å?¯é??,把鹦鹉关进了冰箱冷è—?室。

几分钟�,他打开冰箱,��鹦鹉冻得直�抖,便问�:“这下你知�说��的�果了�?� 鹦鹉答�:“请告诉我,冰箱里的鸡犯了什么错误?�

So it’s a silly joke, and I’m sure I’ve heard it somewhere else in English. But that’s generally about as entertaining as textbooks get. Well, this one has had some decent articles. Decent by textbook standards, that is. But still, there’s only so far you can take a textbook before you want to set it on fire and dance madly around it  whooping deliriously.

And I reached that point when I finished reading that joke last night. I tried the second piece in  课外阅读, but after a couple of sentences, I was reaching for the lighter and some accelerant.

I fumbled around with a couple of Chinese learning magazines I scavenged from a former colleague’s place as his wife cleaned up the last of their junk (he had already left, and besides, the only Chinese he ever learnt in two years here was pijiu, baijiu, and Mao Zhuxi wansui!, so it’s not like he was going to miss this stuff), and found them even less inspiring than the text book.

So I reached for my copy of 活�/To Live by 余�/Yu Hua. lzh bought it for me a few months ago because I saw a few people online saying it was pretty good for intermediate-level students. A few months ago I sat down and scanned the first two pages and thought I had a pretty good idea of the gist of it. Then I sat down and waded through the first paragraph. I discovered two things:

  1. I did have a reasonable grasp of the gist of the story.
  2. There was a shitload of detail I’d missed.
  3. There was a lot more new vocab than I realised.

So it took me about two hours to get through that first paragraph. Actually, I didn’t even finish that first paragraph. A bit demoralising, and the book was put aside for later. Then lzh read it instead.

Anyway, as part of my attempts to fight off pyromaniac urges I picked up To Live and started on that first paragraph again. It was much easier this time. Still a lot of new words, but manageable, and I only spent about an hour on it and got through that paragraph easily. Afterwards I read it back to lzh, and a few of the characters I’d forgotten already, but I managed just fine.

So by all objective measures To Live is too hard for me. I mean, if you follow the “pick a random page, read it, if you have more than 10 new words it’s too hard” rule, then I’m in way over my head with this one. But I’m kinda hopeful with this. I think I can manage it- slowly, yes, but surely. My inspiration for trying this tactic is twofold:

  1. Textbooks are frustrating and limiting and I’m really reaching the limit with the one I have right now.
  2. One of my Russian lecturers, an Englishman, told the class one day that in his younger, student days, when he was in the Soviet Union, he decided he wanted to get to grips with reading real Russian, so he picked up a novel and a dictionary and got stuck in. Took him about a year, but he got through it and by the time he finished the novel his Russian reading skills were awesome.

I guess it goes without saying that the teachers who’ve had the biggest impact on my life have all been language teachers. I decided to try that same tactic my Russian lecturer had used, and that’s why I asked lzh to pick me up a copy of To Live. With that, a dictionary, and occasional help from lzh, I’m sure I can make some real progress with real-life written Chinese. I think I’ll also keep up with reading newspaper articles and maybe posting rough translations of them here. I feel so limited using only textbooks, the couple of attempts I’ve made at newspapers and now To Live over the last couple of weeks have been a breath of fresh air and a boost to my confidence. They don’t feel limiting, they feel liberating.

Also, lzh has promised to get me some easier books, at the kiddies level. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but balancing this hard stuff with something easier might be a good idea. It’s also worth trying, though.

And if I can make a decent go of this, I might see what I can do about poetry and classical stuff.

(x-posted to chrislzh.over-blog.com)

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