Q&A: American Linguist Chronicles Life, Love and Language in China
Q&A: American Linguist Chronicles Life, Love and Language in China

American linguist Deborah Fallows spent three years, from 2006 until 2009, living in China. She was there accompanying her husband, journalist James Fallows, on his assignment as correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, and they lived in both Beijing and Shanghai, spending 18 months in each city.

Her experiences make up her new book, "Dreaming In Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language." Ms. Fallows prepared for her stay in China by taking Mandarin classes in Washington, D.C. before her departure. In an interview with VOA, Fallows said that despite her preparation, she found the language very challenging.

Why did you find the Chinese language so difficult when you arrived?

"I've studied a lot of languages in my life, I've been trained as a linguist, I have a Ph.D. in linguistics, so I kind of know what I'm doing in this territory and I've been down these roads many times before.  But nothing really prepared me for the absence of anything that seemed familiar at all to me in approaching Chinese. There are so many differences and so few similarities, certainly between Chinese and English, and between Chinese and, I would say, any other Western language, that it leaves you with kind of nothing to grab on to, nowhere to get any traction, and that would extend from say the grammar, the grammatical system which is actually one of the blessings of Chinese because it's so simple, there are very few inflections in the language and so that aspect is pretty simple but everything else is pretty hard, starting from the sound system, which is very different from English in that there are a lot of sounds that we don't have in English and a lot of sounds we do have in English that don't exist in Chinese, so you're off balance and off guard trying to hear the important things that you need to hear and then reproduce them, and of course the tone system is probably the biggest nemesis to every Western language learner. So for me, it was one of the hardest things I've ever done is to try to get anywhere with this language."

How did you prepare to learn Chinese?

"I spent about a year taking some night courses at Georgetown University here in Washington, D.C., where we lived before we went to China in preparation and I thought, 'Okay this will kind of be like anything else I do and and I'll get somewhere with it.' I did make it through the first year's book, and so I thought, 'I'm ready, I'm ready for Shanghai!' And, then, when we landed in Shanghai, I had the strange experience of literally not being able to open my mouth and utter a single word and not being able to understand anything that anyone was saying to me.  I later found out that this wasn't entirely my fault.  The accent in Shanghai is very different from the accent in Beijing, and my Mandarin teacher was [from Beijing].  So, it took me an amazingly long time to just kind of sort through this and get my ear tuned yet again to a register of sounds that was very different from the ones I had been studying."

Your book is subtitled "Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language." We touched on language, what about some of the lessons in love, in courtships?

"In love, well this is interesting, because I find that the sensibility around love is a kind of metaphor for all that's changing so rapidly in China.  The first thing I noticed that there was something kind of funny going on with the word 'love' when we were in China the first time in the mid-1980's and had our little kids with us, I had two little boys then, now all grown up, and was with a Chinese woman who was kind of scrutinizing me, looking at the little boys, and saying, 'Well, which one do you love more?' And I was really taken aback and thought, 'Well, what kind of question is that? I love them both,' and she would say 'But, no, really, which one do you love more?' So that thing about love always stuck in my mind, and 20 years later when we went back, I heard a few other funny things about love used. One was when we moved to Beijing, I spent some time with a young Chinese woman, she and I were having this conversation, this conversation was in English, about our families and getting to know each other a little bit.  So she said, 'Your kids are all grown up, you must have been married for a long time.'  She was young, in her mid-30's, was married and had a little kid, and had a great job.  And then she said, 'Well to be married so long, you must love your husband a lot.' And so I said, 'Well, yeah, I love him a lot, and I'm sure you must love your husband a lot too.' And she paused, and said, 'Well I love him for now.'"

What about other examples of love?

"If we were in Shanghai, in People's Park, any weekend afternoon, you would see parents who had unmarried offspring, who would go to the park having made a placard or a cardboard sign describing their unmarried child, and with a picture of that person. It would say so-and-so's name, age, graduated from 'such-and-such' university, was so tall, had a job here, was making this much money and you'd watch this whole choreography of pairs of couples going around, sizing up each other's signs about their children and seeing if they were interested in one another. And if they were, kind of approaching the parents and trying to strike up a conversation and seeing if they could do a little match-making. In that situation, you never saw those unmarried twenty-somethings present, they were as far away from this operation as possible. But you did see them on the subways, in the parks, on the streets.  You could tell looking for a match out of romantic love. So I had the feeling that in China, the whole idea of love and partnerships and marriage was in flux right now, and everything was up for grabs. And so that whole revolution around the word 'love' seemed to be a metaphor for what was happening right now at this moment in China as so much changing, where the older generation is kind of struggling to keep up or hanging on to a bit of what used to be, and the younger generation pushing this new idea and new sensibility forward as fast as it would go."