Easy to Learn, Harder to Remember

bridge e1399320886443Mandarin is a brilliantly simple language. The grammar, while rigid, is straightforward and practical, and it employs the familiar subject-verb-object structure. The verbs never conjugate. Nouns don’t change between singular and plural forms. The vocabulary gets used and reused to form compound words; just last night, for example, I learned that the word for “automatic” was nothing more strange than the words for “self” and “animate” (which I learned as part of “animal”) stuck side by side. The basic facts of the language are easy—the words aren’t hard to learn, they’re just very hard to remember.

I find I can’t pick up Mandarin by osmosis. The words are too different; the sounds too foreign. Out in the world, I try to remember the word for “bridge.” I know it’s in my head somewhere—I produced it easily just yesterday, but it won’t come. My mind had no previous structure to fit Mandarin into, although I’m slowly acquiring such a structure as I learn. Especially in these initial months, the name of the game is brute memorization—repetition, study, and more repetition.

So, I find Rosetta Stone to be wonderfully useful. The direct, translation-less association of words and ideas does a great job of getting content to stick in my reluctant brain. I’d like to especially highlight a sometimes overlooked benefit of Rosetta Stone: the Audio Companion. With a few megs of sound files on my phone, I can solidify what I’ve learned while riding the bus, cleaning the apartment, or practicing calligraphy.

As more and more Mandarin becomes easy and automatic for me, I’m making associations with new words. But there’s still an awful lot of elbow grease needed to get things to stick. When it doesn’t work, it’s terribly frustrating. When it does, the rewards make it all worthwhile.

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  • Luohan

    I love the program for Mandarin. So much so that after getting Rosetta Stone V2 for Mandarin while finishing my Bachelors degree in East Asian Studies, when I graduated I decided I wanted to work for RS. My advice, from *lots* of experience is to definitely keep soaking it up any way you can, and to definitely take advantage of the studio sessions with native-speaking coaches…you start making tons of new connections that reinforce the material you learn…

    Also, at a certain point, when you get relatively comfortable with the day-to-day language, you start to have a large enough and strong enough foundation in vocabulary that new things you learn fit into the structures you already know. From the post above, I figured out that you meant “zi dong,” and realized that I had heard it somewhere: zi dong fu ti – or “escalator.” Understanding the components, however, really strengthens your ability to use vocabulary across a variety of situations, rather than just mimicking what you’ve heard the way you’ve heard it.

    Of course, Chinese has such a long history, that I don’t think the little moments of realization and appreciation will ever stop. I just found out that the word for ‘neon’ is a borrowing from an ancient term for a secondary rainbow, which sounds similar. And of course, thousands of years ago, the Chinese already had a specific word for “Double Rainbow.” Whoooaaa.

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