Friday, January 20, 2006

A really bizarre couple of days that have left me rather confused...

I mentioned in the previous post about perceived problems with the book and movie club that a friend and I had started. Today this has only intensified with a stream of threatening e-mails cumulating in warnings of deportation as it was said that we were trying to 'disseminate anti-governmental propaganda'! Wow!

We are merely a group of friends getting together once a week to chat about the books and movies that we've enjoyed over the years. It's also clearly stated on our web page that political discussion will not be tolerated, specifically so that such things won't happen.

Since then we've been thrown-off the original expat forum which has been so helpful in connecting us with friends. We've also been in touch with the British Embassy to make sure that our positions are not in jeopardy. A fun day indeed.

I was surprised how little government censorship there was when I got out here but this has been a bit of a shock to the system - incidentally this is not government censorship, this is supposedly coming from an American who wants to report us for our non-patriotic activities. Will keep you posted.


The following is a bit of a rant, it's not clearly thought out but it's my gut-instict, possibly even my git-instinct.

I was sent a link by TI a couple of days ago to a news article about the increasing number of schools in England teaching Mandarin. Lots of people posted their views on the subject but I feel that with only three months experience my ideas are still in their infancy. I do however feel quite strongly about this.

From what I understand, it takes an extra two years for a child to learn to read and write using a pictographic (character) system of writing than it does for a child using an alphabetised system. This is reasonable as it takes such a long time to learn the many thousands of different characters (2500 needed to read a paper).

My personal view is that if I was made to learn this at school I would now feel that the many hundreds of hours I would have to put in to learn the system by rote would have been wasted. I say this EVEN THOUGH I'm now out here and struggling.

My personal views are that the emphasis on memorising things as opposed to understanding things in schools is too high already. I understand that this is an inherent problem of learning languages and I see that it is something that us English speakers are generally very lazy about (uptake of French in schools is declining steadily).

To me it just seems like such a gargantuan task to learn the Chinese writing system that anyone who takes it seriously will have to put less effort into other subjects which will develop skills other than a good memory for learning abstract characters.

I do see it as great to give Mandarin as an option for kids but when a college makes it compulsory it seems like the wrong move.

The essence of the article is that Chinese is going to be the language of the future and will be hugely helpful for these kids as they grow up in a Sino-dominated world.

Perhaps, but maybe I'm cynical as I was forced to study Russian for five years for exactly the same reason - "Russian will be a hugely important language of the future". I do feel more sure about Chinese place in the future than I ever did with Russia at the time.

I now feel that I never 'got' Russian, it just never clicked even in five years, and I believe that I gained little from the many thousands of hours I spent practicing. Perhaps I believe this because I have for most of my academic life been pretty sure which direction I was heading and so the many hours I spent not learning maths and physics feel like they were stolen hours.

As I said, these views are less liberal (I think) than most of my views but my main argument is that the time a child spends rote learning three thousand characters which I believe they are unlikely to need in the future could be much better spent doing other things. Of course there will be kids who love it, thrive on it and go on to become successful because of it but my guess is that compared to the number who struggle painfully through will outweigh the benefits of this push.

Here endeth the lesson, my apologies.

I'm interested to hear the viewpoint of other people who aren't shrouded by a cloud of Chinese characters that they feel slightly bitter about.


Some film news from last week: I'd never heard of The best of youth (La Meglio Gioventu) - a 6 hour Italian epic about a group of friends growing up in the 60s and watching them progress to today. It takes in many of the historic events of Italy over the last 40 years and in its many hours paints a superb character study of several fascinating people. Another wonderful movie.

Finally, I promise...chatting to a friend I realised an interesting point though clearly a generalisation. While watching Irreversible, the hugely shocking scene in the underpass caused little emotion (I lie, little outward emotion) to my hosts as opposed to the scene later on with nudity. It was the second of these which prematurely ended the viewing of this film. I don't know if I'm reading too much into it but was intrigued by the different attitudes to sex and violence out here.


Unknown said...

Strange perhaps but I'm going to comment on my own rant before the criticisms come rolling in (which I hope they still will).

I do think that increasing possible communication between races around the world is valuable and indeed vital to the peaceful development of society. I'm just not sure in this case how the effort and the outcome would weigh up against each other for the 'average' student.

I do believe in choice for students and think that the opportunity is superb. I would just hope that before making a choice, students have all the possible information in front of them. This was not the case with me and Russian and perhaps this goes a little way to explain my vehemence.

Luca said...

My humble opinion is that (not always of course) native english speakers assume everybody in the world speak english and so not much interest in learning a different language to be able to communicate. That could be a reason of a certain laziness you were speaking about but nevertheless it's almost impossible to learn a foreign language if one is not forced to speak it.
Many italians know english, few speak it.

Speaking of chinese. I've been told once by a UN administrative to try to learn either arab or chinese or better both. They're much harder to learn than european language as our native language doesn't share much with them ... still - as the world is today - it will become more and more important to learn them, and kids find to learn a language much easier than grown-ups.
Of course it could be - this nowadays seen necessity - a soap bubble, but the same could be said for english in Italy.

About La Meglio Gioventù. I never saw that both because it's a 6hours movie and because it's about italian politics a bit (or so I've been told) ... what did you like about it? Is it too much "cultural", namely too much rooted on italian recent history? Till when is it going? First Berlusconi government? Mani Pulite?

By the same director I would suggest "I Cento Passi" about a mafia killing in the sixties. If you like italian movies I'd suggest "Ovosodo" by Virzì and any movie by Nanni Moretti, "Aprile" in particular.

Unknown said...


yes, I completely agree with your points about the assumptions of English speakers.

One experience which springs to mind is the fact that most English kids are taught French. Some pick it up well but it's generally taught at a relatively late stage in education (or at least it was when I was at school). Consequently mine and most of my classmates' French was only passable. When I go to France I can speak a little bit and have a small chat but most of the time I find the French person can speak better English than my French, so we speak in English.

Having been on several French exchanges, English was generally the default langauge to use. This gives English kids a bit of a 'why bother' attitude, or at least it did for some people I know. We learnt it, we're not as good as them, we can communicate, what's the point? This is clearly a bad attitude but I think it may be the experience of a large number of British students. (As you can tell I'm making this up as I go along).

I've been thinking about this since writing the post and have one thing that I guess bugs me.

I think my main qualm about learning Chinese in particular is that I find the idea of a character system so inefficient. The fact that it takes Chinese kids an extra two years to get to the same reading proficiency says a lot. To me langauge is simply communication (except from an aesthetic point of view which to me is a different argument entirely) and communication to me should be efficient. It's a mental battle for me to learn something that I can see is inherently inefficient (or at least my three month reaction is such).

As I said before my anti-pictograph sentiments at the moment are fuelled mostly by the fact that I'm having to learn them. As I learn them I wonder why a much simpler system isn't used. The answer is obvious but it doesn't make me feel any better about spending half an hour of repetition to learn a single character.

I don't think that learning another language so that one can communicate with others is a waste of time. I think it should be emphasised far more than it is in British schools but I like things to be efficient and my gut instinct is that Chinese isn't. That doesn't mean that it shouldn't be taught but that the time/reward ratio should be carefully studied.


La Meglio Gioventu is certainly played with a backdrop of Italian politics and affairs over the last 40 years (It covers roughly 196?-200?). The characters get caught up in the floods in Venice and the student riots of the 70s. I'm sure there's a lot more to it that I don't know through my lack of knowledge but to me it felt more of a character study than political commentary. I watched it over two days and it's split nicely into two parts which can be watched apart (though the order is important). I particularly enjoyed it because in the long run-time the personalities could be carefully molded before your eyes and empathy with each character becomes much easier. I also thought the direction was excellent with superb timing at particularly poignant moments making some scenes stunning and touching though very simple.

Many thanks for the other suggestions, I'll keep an eye out.

Anonymous said...

OK you want comments on learing Chinese. Firstly, it certainly hasn't been mentioned widely that anything of the kind is proposed for English schoolchildren, though it might be being piloted in a group of schools I guess. I would be inclined to agree that it would be hard on children to be forced to work on this new language without choice, but if the choice were given maybe too few to be effective would be taking it up. However, I wouldn't consider it a waste of time to learn to write Chinese, because it would be very good excercise for those neural pathways, perhaps even making people more visually aware of shapes and symbols as well as brain-stretching. I really think that today's generation do miss out on some of the advantages of rote learning. Those who were made to do massive chunks of poetry or Shakespeare etc. have benefitted by being aware of what their brains can take on. This might be considered to be a waste of time in schools nowadays but I'm sure that making the brain make that sort of effort is valuable and enables it to do more in other ways too, as long as that is not all that it is presented with. Having learned a surprising number of characters by studying two afternoons a week for a year, I don't think that it is such an impossible task and it really is good to get a chance to think seriously about another culture via the language. It is fascinating to see how a language can be put together visually this way too.

Unknown said...

OK, yes, I think I agree with you points. My initial reaction is that children at school are, you're right, not currently forced to rote learn (at least I wasn't). From a neurological point of view I see what you're saying but I genuinly don't know (having not done it myself) whether it would be truly beneficial. I think that there are many other ways of showing a child how powerful their brain can be.

Of course it's beneficial from a cultural and communication point of view.

I think I am, as I imagined I would be, being put firmly in my place on this one.