Mastering Mandarin

2 min
at 11:43 PM

Communicating in a new language is more than learning conjugations and vocabulary. It’s about listening and speaking. When Andy Monteiro figured that out, it changed his life.

Bilingual fluency has been an elusive chimera that I’d pursued with considerable vigor throughout school and college. Upon graduation, I claimed high grades in French and German, effortlessly conjugating irregular verbs and writing grammatically flawless sentences, but I failed miserably at the real life test of communicating with native speakers, and building that special bond through mastery of the spoken language.

Twenty years later, I was offered an opportunity to spend two years on a project in China. Mastering Mandarin Chinese became my new mantra.

Reflecting on my earlier experiences, I surmised that my efforts had been misdirected. Traditional second language instruction focuses on writing and reading to the detriment of listening and speaking. This really is a strange teaching paradigm since any 3-year old native speaker will rapidly convince you that mastery of listening, and then speaking is the prerequisite for fluency. And so I resolved to learn Chinese solely through MP3 podcasts, and focus my learning on listening and speaking.

In Beijing, I found the perfect tutor, LiXiao. She patiently recorded MP3 conversations, and drilled me in the nuances of pronunciation through interactive dialog. I soon amassed a decent vocabulary. I could exchange pleasantries and shop at neighborhood markets. Emboldened by my burgeoning language skills, I gingerly suggested to LiXiao that she might enjoy life in the United States.

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“Wen Wo”, she teased mischievously, meaning “Ask me”, but a plausible misinterpretation is, “Kiss me”.

And so I did.

LiXiao and I are happily married and I look forward to many more pleasant years of mastering Mandarin.

With a Perspective, I’m Andy Monteiro.

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Andy Monteiro works in high tech and lives with his wife in Silicon Valley.

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