Language Learning Is Hard?
Not If You Follow Hari’s Way!

ISSUE18 JUNE 2012 MyUM

 

Inside a café sat a young couple. Out of pure boredom, they were judging every customer entering the café, when a handsome foreign man emerged.
Girl: Wow, he’s so cute! *@ ­@*
Boy: Shhhh! He could hear you! ˊ_>ˋ
Girl: Oh relax! He can’t understand Mandarin. =^_^=
Then, the foreign man called out something to his companion in fluent Mandarin and walked away, leaving the girl with her jaw on the ground.
Have you had any embarrassing experience like this?

In this increasingly globalized world, many people know several languages. In fact, some of the foreign teachers and students on our campus speak far better Chinese than native Chinese speakers. Meet Hari, an Indian-born translation teacher from the Department of English, who has been working at UM for seven years. If you listen to Hari speak Mandarin without seeing his face, you would think he is some Chinese news broadcaster from CCTV.

Learning Chinese Like Crazy

“Tiananmen Square please, Comrade.” “Comrade? Nobody uses that word anymore.” This interesting dialogue occurred during Hari’s first visit to China in 1997. He addressed the taxi driver as “comrade” to be friendly, only to be teased by the driver. It was hardly his fault though. When he was studying Chinese in India, he only had four text books which were photocopies and full of outdated words and phrases like “comrade” and “people’s commune”. Hari describes the learning environment as very poor. He recalls that there were only a little over a hundred Chinese people in the whole India. With few opportunities to meet Chinese people and see Chinese words, Hari had to invent ways to practice Chinese. During his first two university years, he talked to himself in Mandarin every day like crazy, and parroted after news broadcasters on CCTV. It was not easy but Hari never felt it was a burden, because, says Hari, “I was madly in love with the language. The best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in the environment and have exposure to the language through different channels. To put it simply, you can’t say what you haven’t heard, and you can’t write what you haven’t read.” Hari encourages students to make good use of UM’s multi-lingual environment for language learning.

Hari and his wife’s adopted twins were able to speak fluent English in less
than a year

Don’t Multi-task

“Language learners tend to be over-ambitious in that they want to attend to several things at once, such as pronunciation, grammar and sentence structure, not knowing by doing that they are only distracting themselves,” says Hari. “It’s tiring to multi-task. Don’t do that. Just pay attention to one thing at a time.” Hari says that studies have shown that different languages occupy different regions of the human brain after a “guess-and-struggle” process, so he strongly advises language learners to avoid using bi-lingual dictionaries which make the brain associate each foreign word with an equivalent in the learner’s mother tongue. It’s also important not to limit language learning to text books. Hari advises language learners to watch foreign movies at least once a week and watch foreign TV programmes for at least half an hour a day, without looking at the subtitles. “You may feel bored from incomprehension at first, but if you keep doing it for several months, you’ll start to see the results. Language acquisition is a process of accumulation. You can’t master it overnight,” concludes Hari from his first-hand experience.

A handmade gift by Hari’s students

Life-changing Posters

Hari has loved languages since childhood. Sometimes he tuned out the teachers in class and doodled the names of his classmates in different languages (did one of the names belong to a girl he had a secret crush on?). In the 1980s, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee’s movies were all the rage in India. As many Indians were captivated by the charisma of the movie stars, Hari was fascinated with the Chinese words on those movie posters and dreamed about decoding the mysterious and beautiful language some day. To make his dream come true, Hari studied Chinese for his bachelor’s degree, and due to his outstanding performance, he was recommended by the State Education Commission of PRC (the predecessor of the Ministry of Education) to study ancient Chinese in Beijing for one year. Now, the most enjoyable thing for him is to be able to make a career out of his interest.

Do you still think learning a foreign language is hard? Well, it doesn’t have to be. Follow Hari’s way, and you can also succeed!