The Sparring Partner and I are taking Mandarin Chinese language classes. We'd talked about doing it for a long time, and I had a little extra cash and a lot of spare time, so talley-ho.
It's a strange experience. Oh, the language is alien, to be sure--the whole pictograph thing has the potential for major bewilderment, and it's an evening class half-full of college-age students who are rapidly being left in the dirt by the grown-ups, who know why they're there and what it takes to teach oneself. And then of course there's the 12-year-old who's making us all look bad.
But I digress. The weird part is what's going on in my brain. I have all this language-learning architecture from my high-school French days, and it is getting dusted off and put to use. This causes a bit of confusion at times, when the pinyun looks like a word I know from French (luckily not many of them do), but on the whole I can see why people say it's easier, once you've learnt a second language, to add a third or fourth.
As far as the pictographs go, there's nothing for it but sheer repetition, baby. Flash cards and technology. Writing the characters repeatedly is best, of course--getting the motor synapses involved doubles the reinforcement. But I also bought a couple of 99¢ apps for my iPod, to learn basic drawing conventions and the radicals involved in making the characters. Those two concepts haven't been part of our lessons, yet, but I'm what's called a "deep learner"--I'm not happy memorizing things by rote, I have to know how and why they work. That's made me appear slow and stubborn in some classrooms, but on the other hand I tend to understand better once I've got it, and remember longer than my peers.
So I've learned to teach myself what I want to know. And I've already seen some similarities between the radicals and in the characters we're learning in class. It's like learning a code, which have always fascinated me (I taught myself Morse Code when I was thirteen, just for the hell of it). And God Bless Apple and the makers of apps for creating little talking programs that reinforce pronunciation. I am actually starting to understand the tonal thing, which confused me for years whenever I tried to learn kung-fu jargon from Sit.
But the best part of it all is how learning something new and challenging makes your brain feel more awake, more alert, just more smart. I always said if I had enough time and money I'd study more languages. Granted, I assumed I'd be richer when that day came, but I guess 'just enough' is the zen lesson, huh?