Oberlin Blogs

Winter Term: A Retrospective

January 15, 2009

Zoe McLaughlin ’11

So far, at least for me, Winter Term has been a chance to do something outside of my major. One of my biggest problems with picking a major was that there were so many other things I could have been doing instead. Winter Term provides a great way to explore those other interests without feeling like I should be doing something else.

Take my project last year, for example. I went to Malaysia and started learning Hokkien, the dialect of Chinese spoken there. This has absolutely nothing to do with my major and only tangentially connected to classes I was taking at the time. Why did I pick this project? Well, most importantly, my mum is from Malaysia, and several of my relatives, including my grandparents, live there. Though they all speak English, I've come to realize that what my uncle once said is very true: the conversation will start out in English, move on to a mixture of Chinese and English, and finally settle completely into Chinese. This isn't so bad--I'm used to it by now--but actually learning the language would help, particularly with the jokes told all in English, except for the Chinese punch line. Those get old after a while.

I arranged to take lessons, and then realized how nervous I was. The plan was to meet one-on-one everyday with a teacher I did not know. That was just a little nerve-wracking. Luckily, my worrying turned out to be unnecessary. My teacher was great. Among his various occupations, he teaches Hokkien to doctors and nurses at the local hospitals so that they can converse with their patients. The official language of Malaysia is Malay, but besides the large Malay and Chinese communities, there is also a large Indian community, so Hokkien is certainly not the language everyone speaks.

My teacher is a self-proclaimed banana man: Chinese in appearance, but English-speaking and English-educated. He had only started taking Mandarin lessons a month or so before, couldn't read or write Chinese characters, and had grown up speaking both English and Hokkien.

As a native speaker, though, he provided a unique learning experience, different from the way I'd learned any other language. He would tell me when things sounded wrong, but not necessarily why they sounded wrong, which allowed me to draw on my small knowledge of Mandarin for basic grammar rules and to learn the rest on my own in a less structured way.

My extended family was very excited about the lessons, and they all quickly started asking me questions in Hokkien. At first, I could only catch a word here or there, able to say with certainty that they were talking about eating, but not much more than that. As the weeks progressed, I found that I could often understand the questions, even if my answers were still somewhat unintelligible.

Even better I realized I could go to the market and buy things myself. In general, once people realize you're from America, the prices will suddenly increase, so I tended to keep my mouth shut. Slowly, though, I was able to understand how much things cost and even pay on my own.

Probably the best thing, now that I'm back in the states, is that I can--at least theoretically--claim fluency. The version of Hokkien specific to where my family is from is great because it includes words from Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tamil, and--most importantly--English. What this means is that when I can't remember a word, I can say it in English and still be correct. Fluent? Well, maybe not, but I'm working on it!

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