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Student, Third Year PhD, Descriptive Linguistics, with a major in Mandarin
Learning Mandarin for linguistics student Manuel González Pérez was initially a practical measure to facilitate his PhD research, but it turned out to be not only fun and life-enriching, but an invaluable and significant game changer for Manuel. It helped him to recognise and think around the socio-cognitive biases that were “foisted upon him through his Europe-obsessed western education in Venezuela”.
"Tones are famously fun: you may set out to say “I read a book” (wǒ kànshū) and by the sheer effect of wrong tones end up saying “The snail fell a tree” (wō kǎnshù). Context helps of course, but you eventually have no option but to retrain your mind and ears to become a pitch master!"
1. Tell us a bit about yourself—what you do currently and what you studied.
I am a Venezuelan linguist finishing the third year of my PhD in Descriptive Linguistics. My research is on a Tibeto-Burman language of south-western China, so I have spent many months there during my studies.
2. What drew you to Mandarin?
Cultural psychology. Five years ago, I joined a research group studying the relation between language, culture and thought. Having read extensively about social cognition in East Asia, I wanted to experience it first hand, so I went to Taiwan on a summer scholarship and fell in love with the language and the people. Eventually it became clear that it was a valuable research tool, so I took up the adventure of doing linguistic fieldwork in China, which allowed me both to use my knowledge of Mandarin to set up my project, and gain loads of insights into colloquial and rural ways of communicating.
3. What were your top 3 favourite things about your language course?
Mandarin training was very personalised. On the one hand, the convenors would share some insights from their own professional research, thus enthusing our intellectual curiosity and showing us the kinds of pathways that open up along the way to proficiency in Mandarin. On the other hand, I was able to write essays on my own research and fieldwork experiences in China, which was a great way to improve my written and presentational skills in a way that’s directly relevant to my goals. The flexibility in assessment was greatly motivating as it gave me some agency as to the direction I wanted or needed to take things. The lecturer was very dedicated to each individual student and the group as a whole, making for a cohesive and comfortable learning atmosphere.
Second, the opportunities to study and use my Mandarin in a practical way overseas in country have been really beneficial to my language development. I have spent over a year in China since starting at ANU, and my Mandarin abilities have certainly enriched my capacity to engage with locals in country.
Third, the cohort size, especially in the more advanced Mandarin courses, means that you get a lot of time to get to know others studying Chinese and practice your Chinese with them.
4. Can you name 3 reasons for people to study Mandarin?
As a linguist, I obviously have to start by saying that there are endless reasons to study any language, whether it has a hundred or a billion speakers. As far as Mandarin is concerned, I never cared about the practical or utilitarian side of it, which is huge as everyone knows, but rather took a more scientific and cultural approach. I was particularly interested in immersing myself into textured social networks of a collectivistic society, earning and embracing complex social obligations of various different kinds within a group. There is nothing that quite rivals the social and emotional gains of joining a rural Chinese community’s lifestyle for several months. The stress, the pains, the anxieties and the solitude of my socially acquired hyper-individualistic dispositions dissolve and become entirely irrelevant in the village as I become one with the community.
On a different note, having myself done novel research in the field of Bilingual Relativity, I am always excited about the process of rewiring my cognitive toolkit as a result of acquiring a new language; the more different the language, the more drastic such realignments. Mandarin is structurally very different from the more than 20 languages I had dabbled with before, so it was bound to be at least as exciting as it would be challenging. For example, Mandarin, like other East and SE Asian languages, does not have tense (present vs past vs future).
Instead of placing actions into idealised temporal sections of an abstract nature, it focuses on processes and events as a very concrete flow of experience. There are several grammatical devices specialised to coding sequential experience, such as a thing called Serial Verb Constructions (SVC) and something called Resultative Constructions. These things allow you to chain several verbal elements with one another to express the exact order in which the small components of human experience happen, from mental intentions to carry out an action, to getting into physical position as a preliminary fore step, to releasing energy input that goes into it all the way to the achieved result and ensuing actions that follow up as a natural reaction or progression. Sequence rather than absolute abstract time is what matters in Chinese grammar and this is one of the many things that has enhanced my cognition to pay more attention and analyse faster what our everyday experience is made of.
5. How does it help /has it helped you in your profession or in life?
I’ll just say I was tempted to quit many times along this long path that started out in 2016. But especially for younger learners of Mandarin, I cannot advise strongly enough to stick to it; the world that opens up is truly life-changing.
6. Can you share one fascinating/fun fact about Mandarin/something you find particularly incredible about the language?
Tones are famously fun: you may set out to say “I read a book” (wǒ kànshū) and by the sheer effect of wrong tones end up saying “The snail fell a tree” (wō kǎnshù). Context helps of course, but you eventually have no option but to retrain your mind and ears to become a pitch master. Just to add one more detail related to folk worldviews as reflected in language: there is something that plays out at the beautiful but complex grey zone between grammar and discourse, which I initially found very hard to get the hang of, but now seems not only straightforward but so much more reasonable than the previous patterns I was used to from my native Spanish and other European languages.
Unlike these languages, Chinese and other languages in the region, including my field language Phola, do not much delve into how things or people ARE in terms of fixed identities or essences, but rather how one ought to SPEAK about or describe different kinds of situations and settings. For example, the verb “to say” in Chinese appears in many grammaticalised devices to express functions regarded as “logical” or “ontological” in the European tradition such as conditionals (if A then B). By the same token, speaking is understood as a primary way of dealing with and understanding social reality, so when figuring out what people’s intentions are, how to solve a problem or how to go about doing something, you may ask how someone or a situation is to be “spoken” as it were. This is not a metaphor unlike English, but a conventional strategy to navigate the world.
While we Europe-descended folks are obsessed with what things “truly” or “actually” ARE that our language and communication practices should supposedly strive to reflect in an objective way, East Asia much more accurately sees reality as a constant flux of contextual variables and recognises social communication as the main form of access humans have to this fluid reality. Cognitive science has interestingly shown how so called WEIRD people (Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic) are prone to a myriad of cognitive biases such as Fundamental Attribution Error, whereby say a westerner may incorrectly judge the personality of a person or the inherent properties of an object to be the cause of an outcome. Findings consistently reveal that East Asians are much less likely to display FAE among other biases of the hyper analytic, essentialist West. This is both reflected in and enacted through language: learning Mandarin has been a huge aid in recognising and thinking around the socio-cognitive biases that were foisted upon me through my Europe-obsessed western education in Venezuela.
Everyone who learns Mandarin has a favourite idiom or phrase. One of my favourite phrases, which almost all of my Mandarin teachers have emphasised at some point or another, is the phrase 学而优则仕 xue er you ze shi, which means that ‘a good scholar can become an official’ or ‘he who excels in study can follow an official career’. I really like this phrase as it epitomises so many different aspects of Chinese culture—the emphasis on studying hard and merit and the respect Chinese society has for the civil service. My Mandarin teachers would use it to motivate my peers and me before exams.
7. What are your future plans with respect to Mandarin or any other language?
I am hoping to go back to China for my postdoctoral research to continue my linguistic research. In the meantime, I keep on honing my language skills on an everyday basis, especially as regards more formal and technical vocabulary that I might need in novel situations I have not so far faced, or ones that I have faced but fared poorly at, such as an interview for a documentary by a research party from a provincial university in China who came to the rural village I work in. I was not able to do full justice to the nature of my research and findings in the allotted timeframe partly due to my lack of practice in such a fast-paced and formal communicative setting. I would love to teach Chinese linguistics and Chinese language in higher education in the future, especially to native speakers of Spanish with little prior knowledge about Asia.
8. Anything else you’d like to share? An interesting anecdote about your study of the language perhaps?
This may or may not sound intuitive or resonate with some or all who might be reading this, but I have never felt as free, fulfilled and liberated from the deepest obstacles standing in the way of happiness, as I have in rural China. I can only recommend to learn about it and try it out first hand.
Are you interested in learning Mandarin Chinese to make inroads into a local community, just like Manuel? Take the first step and enquire now!
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