Deborah Lecture on Dreaming in Chinese

Dreaming in Chinese

—2011 CIVU’s First Bimonthly Lecture

How to learn the Chinese language fast and efficiently? Dr. Deborah Fallows’ new book “Dreaming in Chinese” may prove to be a good answer. How to help American learners of Chinese with some tips on mastering the Chinese language so they can learn it better? The CIVU’s first bimonthly lecture of 2011 served this purpose.

On the evening of February 3, 2011, which happened to the first day of the first lunar month of the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, Valparaiso citizens, CIVU students, VU faculty and students who studied Chinese, leaders and teachers from the Confucius Classroom at Culver Academies, the principal and Chinese teacher from New Prairie Middle School—a group of more than 40 guests—attended the CIVU’s well-planned lecture by Dr. Deborah Fallows on her book Dreaming in Chinese, which reminds one of Chinese writer GUO Xiaolu’s narration of her experiences in learning the English language in her book “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers” published by Doubleday in 2007.

Dr. Fallows began her lecture by sharing how she’d prepared herself for her trip to China, particularly in arming herself with what she could learn about the ancient yet fresh (to her), and somewhat mysterious, Chinese language. Upon settling down in China, however, she was dismayed to find what she’d learned from her Chinese classes was way different from what she encountered when hearing the laobaixing (common folk) speaking in the streets. She was baffled by the four tones of the Chinese language, which is by no means similar to any alphabetic language like English. The four tones of each character, she said, manipulate the choices and combinations of characters and further define the meaning of a character, expression or sentence.

As a Harvard Ph. D. in linguistics, Fallows advocates learning Chinese in situations as real as possible, such as talking with local people and learning from their live language. As a tip for the audience, she analyzed the differences in cognition of space between English and Chinese, taking descriptions of orientation as an example. Whereas English takes north and south as the basic axis, Chinese bases its spatial expressions mainly on east and west. Examples suffice in English expressions like north-east, south-east, north-west and south-west, and in Chinese expressions such as东北(east-north)、东南(east-south)、西北(west-north)、西南(west-south). Another difference lies in the fact that English spatial (and temporal) expressions range from smaller to bigger units, and Chinese in the other way round. Such differences, she remarked, indicate the difference in perspectives of cognition of the two languages.

Apart from sharing her experiences in, and understanding of, the Chinese language, Dr. Fallows also touched upon the differences in enthusiasm for, and emphasis on, foreign languages—in this case, English and Chinese—in both countries. “Chinese students have much more sustainable enthusiasm for English than American students do for Chinese,” she commented, “and China lays much more emphasis on English language teaching than the US does on Chinese language teaching.”

Her lecture, like her book, was full of humor and interaction. Mr. Walt Breitinger, an entrepreneur from Valparaiso, commented: “From your experience, I’m inclined to believe we should work more to help make Chinese a foreign language in our schools here in Valpo. The school where my three sons graduated didn’t and doesn’t offer Chinese, which is the national language of a country that is fastest-growing and has probably the biggest potential. I don’t wish today’s kids to repeat my sons’ regrets.”

Deborah Fallows and her husband, James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, had stayed in Shanghai and Beijing for three years, and had travelled to many places in China. Her book was published by Walker & Co., New York in 2010. Professor Laura D. Tyson of Global Management, Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley compliments: “Dreaming in Chinese is original, entertaining, gracefully written, and provides insights into life and culture in contemporary China… This is a terrific book for anyone who wants to improve their understanding of this extraordinary country.” David Ignatius, Columnist for The Washington Post, and author of “Body of Lies”, comments: “The joy of this book is its sense of humor and adventure. I can’t think of a better book for someone who wants to understand the lovable, infuriating, and hilarious country that is China.”

The lecture was moderated by Professor Zhimin Lin, Board Member of the CIVU, and Chair of the Chinese and Japanese Studies Program. The following morning, Dr. Fallows was invited to the CIVU house for a discussion, at which she shared her opinions on language learning and teaching with Professors MENG Jianyun and LIU Jiangang, the CIVU’s Director and Associate Director respectively, and with CIVU Chinese language professors HE Jun, MING Liang and ZHANG Rong. Later, she offered three more presentations for more than 120 VU students majoring in International Commerce and Policy, Master of Arts in Chinese Studies, and Chinese and Japanese Studies, at which she autographed for her readers and was interviewed by local media people.


(Text by LIU Jiangang, photo by ZHANG Xia, CIVU)

Deborah Lecture