By Kyle Mullin
Discipline. Precision. Memorization.
These are the exacting demands that conventional Chinese lessons leave on students. But Saurabh Sharma says working professionals are hesitant to devote what little spare time they have to four oral tones and thousands of characters that, with a slight mistake, could become the literal opposite of what they intend.
“Imagine learning for one month and still not being able to say and read the difference between mǎi, to buy (买), and mài, to sell (卖). It can be very frustrating and demotivating. Most people give up at this point,” says Sharma, an Indian marketing exec who grew frustrated with Mandarin during his dealings in China. “The learner needs to get some ‘quick wins’ to feel that he is getting somewhere.”
Sharma hopes to offer those zippier lingual victories with his new book Turbo Chinese. He writes on the importance of technique over memorization when learning Mandarin under a tight deadline. Below Sharma tells Shanghaiist how he derived this method, and what pitfalls may lie in cutting those linguistic corners.
What are some of the drawbacks of Turbo Chinese? If users are learning Mandarin so quickly, does that mean that they’ll lack understanding in terms of structure, depth, or comprehension?
Turbo Chinese helps foreigners in familiarizing themselves with Chinese. It shows that the language is not as difficult as it looks. Not as complicated as many say. It gives confidence that they too can learn it. It gives a solid foundation that can help them fly.
Right now, its key weakness is that it only has a few hundred characters and words in it. If someone already knows some characters and wants to develop higher order knowledge of the language, or clear examinations and get certifications in Chinese, Turbo Chinese is not the answer for him. Also, Turbo Chinese is more fun and it triggers free flowing imagination. Some people might not want to learn like this. They might prefer a more structured approach.
Why doesn’t that kind of structure work for you, or many other expats?
An average expat does not have the luxury of time. He or she has a packed workweek, and on weekends they might want to relax and slow down a little. Now the choice that he has to make is between relaxation and the tiresome exercise of learning Chinese. This is not much of a choice, is it? This is another reason why learning the language needs to be more interesting than what it is.
I believe we need to learn what we can learn quickly. We need to learn that which we find interesting. And the rest will follow.
How did ‘the rest follow’ for you? What did you do exactly in the beginning to develop the alt-method that would become Turbo Chinese?
When the regular way of learning did not work for me, I just started looking at important words and interesting-looking characters. I then started to find ways of remembering them by connecting them with stories and experiences in my head. That’s it.
It is not very scientific, but it works. The other way to learn is to learn like you have to teach someone. That also works like magic. Suddenly, you think about things from a new perspective. And you understand not just remember.
How do you develop that notion further in the book?
It’s about looking at Mandarin from a learner’s point of view. That means non-linear learning– learning first that which is easy, learning first that which is more interesting and fun. It is about ideas and inspiration before rules and regulations.
At a higher-level, to be able to learn Chinese we need to allow room for the difference in the construct of the language. In the book, I call this ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ That means opening our mind to a new way of sentence construction, tones, lack of alphabets etc. It really helps when we suspend our knowledge. It’s like emptying the cup to fill it up again.
Turbo Chinese is now available at Amazon.com. Buy a copy of the book here.