Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated with foreign languages. At age 13 my parents told me I could have anything I wanted as a bar mitzvah present. Without any hesitation I requested a short wave radio. I bought it at Lafayette Electronics in Newark, NJ. It was a large, blue, metal box with several dials for tuning. From the back I was able to peer inside and see the glowing tubes.
I am not too sure how my siblings spent their evenings and nights. Mine were spent in the basement of our house, my bedroom, endlessly turning the dials and happily listening to strange voices speaking in foreign languages from far away places. I quickly became adept at distinguishing between the various tongues. If you needed someone to distinguish between Ukrainian and Polish, Estonian and Finnish, Yiddish and German, Cantonese and Mandarin, then I was your man. Any new language which I couldn’t identify ( the missionary stations were good for these) became an obsession. Then, once catalogued, I would move on.
Each language, I discovered, had it’s own cadence, it’s personal signature. There were spoken and written patterns to the various languages and these, I noticed, made it so that without understanding a word I could still easily identify the language. It is like picking up the phone and hearing the voice of someone you know. Maybe you don’t know them too well. However, intentionally or not, you have caught on to the underlying voice signature. This is unconscious, both on the part of the speaker and the listener. Hence, its power and ease of being learned.
The speaker may only utter one word. You instantly know who it is. If it is not someone you know well you may not recall their name but you do know that ” I know him.” This is a primordial form of learning, one which sticks forever, effortlessly. If you can do this ( and I know that you can, we all can) then, as you will soon learn, you can do it with spoken Chinese. Effortlessly. Just as effortlessly as you learn to recognize a familiar voice.
In 1995 I had the good fortune to meet Michel Thomas. How this happened and what resulted I shall explore in future posts. Mr. Thomas was a teacher who had developed a method to teach foreign languages with a minimum of effort on the part of the learner. The entire period of study usually was no more than a few days. Everything was done orally, usually one on one or in small groups. Over a period of close to fifty years he taught more than 8,000 students in this way. From 1995 until shortly before his death in January, 2005, I was fortunate to study under him. Besides illustrating his method by teaching me two languages he agreed to help me understand just how he was able to achieve his remarkable results. In essence, he imparted a practical understanding of his teaching and course development methodology.
The Michel Thomas method became famous in the UK in 1997 when the BBC broadcast a documentary of Mr. Thomas teaching French to a group of English students. These were young people who had displayed a singularly difficult time learning foreign languages. Some had even been told that their lack of aptitude insured that they would never learn a foreign language.
Within a week Michel Thomas had them happily chattering away in grammatically correct French. They were subsequently tested and it was announced that they had successfully achieved a level that might be possible after two years of formal study.
Impressive, to say the least.
Prior to this Mr. Thomas had told me about his tapes which he rented out for in office use only. They were never to leave the office since he was concerned that someone might use them to copy his work. Over a period of several years I persuaded him to agree to release them publicly. Finally, in agreement with the British publisher Hodder, Michel Thomas courses in French, Spanish, German and Italian were published on CD and in cassette form and released to wide acclaim.
Following the death of Michel Thomas I was approached by Hodder to work with them on related projects. What resulted was the development of a course for English speakers to learn spoken Mandarin Chinese. I have spent quite a bit of time in the design of this course and, after several trials with various students ( from age 16 to 70) ,now expect a student who undertakes this course to emerge with the ability to speak basic Mandarin Chinese. This will take place in a matter of hours which, as far as I know, is unheard of .
Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and several other languages are, in part, distinguished by their use of tones. This factor as well as the sheer foreignness of the languages have traditionally been a real stumbling block for non-native learners. I recently read an essay by a distinguished professor from Princeton University who has spent most of his career teaching Chinese. He wrote that even though he was under no obligation to teach basic, spoken Chinese, it gave him so much pleasure that he continued to do so. However, he noted, when it came to tones this was an area which very few teachers could successfully impart.
Mindful of this I have developed a method to teach tones which, to date, has been even more successful than I had anticipated. It is based on the understanding that each of us has a very personal learning style. The method used (patent pending) manages to utilize unconscious learning styles in a way that makes the tones and their association with specific words stick effortlessly,forever and without repetitious practice . I still am in awe of the results I am seeing with students.
In addition to my years with Michel Thomas I have learned much from many other teachers in various disciplines. For the last seventeen years I have worked full-time as a physician. The nature of my practice is such that I employ innovative approaches to help patients who present with a myriad of disorders. From doing this on a daily basis I have learned many aspects of practical problem solving. It’s just another example of the maxim, Necessity is the mother of invention.I have tried to meld as much of all of this as possible in the Chinese course.
My co-teacher, Jingtao Deng, a native of Beijing, China, speaks a beautiful, clear, traditional Mandarin. It has been a real pleasure to work along side her in the creation of this course in Mandarin Chinese. I look forward to develop many more courses for languages and other subjects.
Just imagine accomplishing something that you had assumed was impossible. It is such a high, such an empowering experience. Some people have gone to seminars ( popular a number of years ago in the US) where they experienced this by fire walking. The very idea of walking over a bed of hot coals without any adverse effect was unimaginable. So, of course, when they successfully completed it ( without burnt feet!) they were delirious with joy. “I did it! I achieved the impossible!” It just opens up so many doors psychologically. The thought arises, “If I can do this then I can do just about anything.”
This is how I feel about the Chinese course.. In less than an hour with the assistance of Jingtao and me you are speaking sentences that you create on your own, sentences which any fluent Mandarin speaker will understand perfectly. They will also assume, from your mastery of the tones and sentence patterns, that you have been studying the language for quite some time. No one would ever believe that such a thing can be accomplished in a few hours and without any memorization, homework, or trying.
Even Jingtao told me that she couldn’t believe what she was witnessing. It was so bizarre, so unbelievable that even though she was the co-teacher she still couldn’t, wouldn’t believe it! Now she believes it ,though, as she repeatedly mentions, it is still hard to accept. It has altered her entire worldview. One of our trial students, a 22 year old woman who didn’t know a word of Chinese when she began and had never studied a tonal language, told us after two days, ” Its a miracle.”
When,after a few short hours, you discover that you can effortlessly produce complicated sentences in Mandarin Chinese you will find that now anything in any area of life is possible. And the great part is that you can take this as far as you wish. If you wish to continue on in Chinese ( possibly more rewarding than walking over hot coals) this is your choice. This foundation is solid and will support you in any direction you may go in your Chinese studies. Should this give you the boost and confidence to tackle something else – go for it! For me, true learning, which you will experience in this course, is totally unique and amazingly empowering. I love it.
It is the ultimate high.