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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Chinese characters on a blackboard
iStockphoto.coAugust 31, 2010
NPR News: To Speak, Perchance to Dream
When Deborah Fallows went to live in China with her husband, she was armed with a few semesters of Mandarin lessons. But when she got to Shanghai, she found she couldn't recognize or speak a single word of what she'd been studying.
Fallows writes about her journey through the Chinese language — and her many missteps along the way — in her new book, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language.
Fallows — who has a Ph.D. in linguistics and speaks six languages — knew that learning Chinese as an adult wouldn't be easy. "Chinese is considered one of the world's difficult languages," she tells NPR's Melissa Block, "along with Japanese and Arabic and Russian."
Even with her background in languages, Fallows says learning Chinese was particularly challenging because it was so dissimilar from all other languages she had studied.
"I didn't feel like I had anything to hang my hat on with this language," Fallows explains. "It just bore no resemblance to romance languages, Germanic languages, Japanese — anything that I'd ever approached before."

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Excerpt: 'Dreaming In Chinese'

Dreaming In Chinese
Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language
By Deborah Fallows
Hardcover, 208 pages
Walker & Company
List price: $22
I first saw China in the summer of 1986. My husband and I had packed up our then small children, left our home in Washington, DC, and gone to live in Japan and Southeast Asia for four years. We jumped at a chance that came our way to visit China for several weeks, after living in Tokyo and before heading for Kuala Lumpur.
The China we visited then was still emerging from the Cultural Revolution. Most of the young people, dressed in their drab Mao suits or simple, cheap clothes, were seeing Westerners for the first time. They would race to scoop up our blond children in their arms for pictures and to practice "Hello! Hello!" in English. The Chinese who greeted us were light and playful; we felt their high-spirited welcome, especially after the constraints of living in traditional, culture-bound Japan.
My recollections of that brief time are in snapshots: I bought bottles of bright orange soda that lay cooling on slabs of ice in vendors' carts. We went to the Beijing zoo, which was dreary and untidy, to look for pandas. The skies in Beijing and Shanghai and Hangzhou were clear and blue. We guessed that the cheerless Stalinist government rest houses where we stayed were probably bugged. On our domestic airliner flying to the south of China, we sat toward the front of the plane in big overstuffed armchairs and held our collective breath on take off, peering through gaps in the floorboards to see the tarmac racing by below.
Almost 20 years later, my husband and I set off to return to China for three years, where he would be reporting and writing long stories for the Atlantic. I would be working on my research for the Pew Internet Project, looking at Internet use in China. This excursion fit into the pattern of our life, alternating several years at home in Washington, DC, with several years out exploring the world.
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