Why I learned to speak Chinese

I was serving on the mathematics department committee that awards graduate assistantships at the University of Memphis, in Tennessee, when a distinguished professor presented the name of a student newly arrived from China. "He's a wonderful student. We have to find money for him." Knowing that it was easiest to find support for students who could teach an undergraduate section, I asked, "How is his English?"

"I don't know," said Prof. Wai Tan, who has spent a long career in the United States and raised his family here. "I've never spoken English with him, only Chinese."

I was delegated to interview the student in English; he did quite well. But I was also moved to write a long essay for the student newspaper and take other opportunities to remind our foreign students that when they go home, many of them will be the local experts on English, whether they want that job or not. I urged them to study more English while they are in the US, as well as mathematics or whatever other major they have.

I greatly admire those who are actually good at languages - I struggle with them, and while my bits of knowledge of other languages are as limited as they are hard-won, they have often been very valuable to me. So it was not just the above exchange with Dr. Tan that led me and my wife to contact his wife, asking if she would give us lessons in Mandarin.

It was 1986, and I had been invited to lecture in China. It is a great merit of college teaching that there is time to travel, and mathematics and computer science are in demand enough everywhere to create wide possibilities.

I never mastered more than 50 or so words of Chinese. But that was enough to say "I've been here two weeks," "I am not from England, I am from America," "This is a beautiful place," and the all-important (to me) "Where is someone who can speak English?"

The latter question, when asked on the street in Guilin, led me to one of the more interesting people I've met. I've lost the scrap of paper with his name on it, so we'll call him Mr. Feng.

Mr. Feng had been born in Chinatown, San Francisco, around 1920, the son of Chinese immigrants to the US. He grew up in the US. But after the end of World War II, his family hoped that peace was returning to China, and he traveled to China to visit his grandparents.

He was still in China when the front of the Chinese Communist revolution passed around Guilin. He was behind the lines, and unable to leave. He settled down to live in China. His knowledge of English led to a job as an English teacher in the public schools. He taught English for the next 20 years.

And then the directive came down: English would not be taught next year. Russian would be taught instead. All teachers who had taught English last year would teach Russian next year.

The teachers protested, "We don't know Russian. It's a different language."

The principal said "It looks the same to me. They both use the same alphabet, don't they?" (They don't, of course. But I have to concede, I'd be hard put to tell Thai from Urdu from Korean, if you put the three in front of me.)

So Mr. Fang learned book-Russian, one week ahead of his pupils, and taught Russian for the next 20 years.

"And now," he said, "it has come around again. They tell us all to teach English. The young teachers all learned Russian. I am the only one in the school who actually ever spoke English."

Returning to the US, I found myself very sympathetic to our students from mainland China. If English isn't taught for 20 years, how does the next generation learn English? I'm remarkably impressed that so many of them do so well.

And the next time Dr. Tan proposed a student for a graduate assistantship, I was able to ask, "Tada yingwen hen hao bu hao?" (Is his English any good?) And, when the laughter had subsided, I could understand Dr. Tan's well-prepared reply.

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