Writer Deborah Fallows discussed her trials and triumphs learning Mandarin Chinese in China at a Davenport College Master’s Tea Thursday.
Fallows and her husband, a writer for The Atlantic, went to Shanghai for three years to research the effects of the Internet on Chinese society. Her experiences during the project evolved into a critically acclaimed book, “Dreaming in Chinese,” which approaches Chinese culture from a linguistic perspective. “It felt like somebody had grabbed my mouth and I could not utter or understand a single word,” Fallows said of her arrival in China. She noted that the dialect spoken in Shanghai is different from the she had learned back home in Washington, D.C. “I thought my teacher must have been teaching me Cantonese instead of Mandarin.”
Prior to her visit to China, Fallows said she and her family were used to living in different cultures and learning their languages. She said the Fallows spend half the year in Washington and the other half traveling internationally. In Japan, Fallows sent her children to a Japanese school to learn the local language and culture in depth. She described the experience as a challenge from day to day, but said it also brought long-term benefits.
Fallows said she attended Chinese classes at a Washington high school before moving to China. She described the experience of learning Mandarin as “really rough and puzzling.”
Fallows said she decided to write her book on the advice of a friend to whom she recounted the challenges she faced in China.
“It would not be just another book based simply on observations of Chinese society,” she said of her concept for the book. “It was my struggle to find my way through China by learning Chinese.”
The book is organized as a series of language lessons, Fallows said, which focus on the aspects of Mandarin that are hardest to grasp. From there, she said, each chapter connects that topic to a unique aspect of China’s culture.
Fallows pointed to the succinct nature of Mandarin as an example. The language often “felt rude,” she said, because it is brusque compared to English.
“Instead of saying ‘No, thank you,’ to waiters, I would be saying ‘Don’t want,’” Fallows said, adding that saying “please” to friends is also considered unnecessary. “I think that language really demystified some strange occurrences I had in China.” Tone was also difficult to master, Fallows said, calling it “the absolute nemesis of my language learning process.” After repeating her order at a local Taco Bell dozens of times in several different combinations of tones, Fallows said she was still unsuccessful in communicating her point. Fallows said she later learned she may have been asking the restaurant employee for a hug instead of food.
Fallows said she may release a Chinese translation of her book. She will be in Shanghai for the next six weeks, during which time she will explore the viability of the translated version. Kang-I Sun Chang, a professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures, said that while she has not read Fallows’ book, she thinks its strength lies not in Fallows’ analysis of Chinese but in the author’s “keen observations of Chinese culture.”
“Her [view] into the logical behavior of people and its relation with language is really insightful,” said Gina Chen ’11.
Fallows holds a doctorate in linguistics from Harvard University and has previously worked for the Pew Internet Project and Oxygen Media.