From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Fieldnotes From History (28)—Settling In Again

[a] Language RF
Part of an occasional Round and Square series that follows the blog’s main theme (east meets west, round meets square, and past meets present), these snippets from my early fieldnotes are reproduced as they were written by hand—and then revised on an ancient desktop computer—during my first fieldwork stay in Taiwan (1985-1987).  All entries are the way that I left them when I returned to the United States in 1987—some nicely-stated and some embarrassing. Although the series began with my assumption that the entries can stand alone, I have found that separate comments and notes might help readers understand a world that is now, well, history. These are always separate from the original fieldnote. 

[b} Budding RF
By early 1986, I had come to terms with some of my frustrations and had begun refining my goals. I also found myself in an exhilarating state. I had learned a great deal. My Mandarin was clicking along, and I was reading with increasing fluency—the result of a combined program of studying classical Chinese and K-12 textbooks. I will have more to say about that method in another set of posts, but the next few notes show a combination of growing knowledge and maybe a little bit of complacency. 

Although I will not go into a long linguistic explanation here, suffice it to say for the reader who does not study Chinese that the spoken and written languages are much further apart than people in Western countries tend to realize. Reading is a specialized skill; there is very little potential for "sounding out" Chinese characters. While that doesn't mean that the two are unrelated, whole generations of Western specialists on China prided themselves on their reading abilities while disdaining speaking (some—a few—even regarded inability to speak well as a point of pride). This situation is almost wholly gone today, but a little of that old "sinology" has crept into this fieldnote, I think.

[c] Slope RF
3 January 1986 
 I am currently attending the Taipei Language Institute ten hours a week. It may not sound like much, but it is concentrated: just one student and one teacher for two hours. You can’t hide, like I used to in high school French. The combination of spoken Mandarin and my reading program in the Four Books and primary education readers is paying dividends already. I am beginning to “get” relationships between everyday experience and the classical past in ways that made little sense to me in college.

My job—which gives me a chance to speak Chinese four hours a day—combined with my Chinese class, was the boost my spoken Chinese needed. During May and June I was in a holding pattern, not regressing, of course, but not really improving very quickly either. Now, however, I can almost feel myself becoming more confident, and speaking better everyday.

When I came here I thought that speaking didn’t matter, that only improving my reading was important. I still have (compared to the majority of Americans here, most of whom are illiterate) an inordinately strong interest in the written language. But the pleasure I get out of speaking well is hard for anyone to understand unless he is a foreigner, or has lockjaw.

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