Turbo linguist

By Vera Penêda Source:Global Times Published: 2012-9-20 19:50:03


Saurabh Sharma shares his unique insight into learning Chinese characters in his book. Photo: Vera Penêda/GT
Saurabh Sharma shares his unique insight into learning Chinese characters in his book. Photo: Vera Penêda/GT

Saurabh Sharma, 34, sees fun anecdotes and animated figures in Chinese characters viewed by many foreigners as complex symbols laden with multiple strokes that demand boring memorization.

The Mumbai native didn't speak a word of Chinese and had never even used chopsticks prior to arriving in Beijing for work five years ago. The need to learn Chinese quickly for his job in advertising and overcome the culture shock drove him to use Chinese characters as visual prompters for images and life experiences already stored in his mind.

Sharma's interpretative method based on imagination improved his ability to learn Chinese and fueled his motivation to conquer the language. Bringing Chinese characters to life makes learning fun, claims Sharma, who has shared his visual studying methods with fellow foreigners in a book titled Turbo Chinese (2012). Sharma offers tips for mastering 100 hanzi (Chinese characters) to instill the belief in readers that they have the courage to scale the Great Wall that is the Chinese language.

From frustration to fun

"What does this character look like to you?" Sharma asked, gesturing to the character fei, meaning "to fly." "To me it looks like a bird buzzing in mid-air. I see its body and wings. After looking at it this way, it's easy to remember the character," he added, explaining he began to look at the character differently upon seeing it at the airport.

"I've picked up a lot of characters like this. I tried finding meanings for the ones that looked interesting and those that stood out. If I could attach a story to a character, then bingo! I'd remember it," he explained.

Like many foreigners who settle in China, Sharma moved from group to individual lessons and went through three Chinese teachers before he noticed an improvement in his Chinese. Working full-time, he was dispirited by the little time available and the lack of excitement in memorizing and repeating characters relentlessly during his weekends.

"My work takes me to several parts of China, and essentially entails talking to people and understanding what they're saying. I felt that perhaps a more creative approach would help me learn Chinese faster," he recalled.

Sharma decided early during his studies that he wanted to learn recognizing hanzi, not writing. He created about 50 mnemonics for characters before he told his teacher about his technique.

"Not only was she very open-minded about my method, she also proposed that I show it to other students to get some feedback," Sharma said, adding he shared his formula with Canadian, Japanese and South Korean students at his Chinese school, who easily memorized 21 out of 30 characters quickly. Sharma's teacher suggested that he write a book about his system, which he started doing in early 2011.

Imagery through imagination

Turbo Chinese is an account of Sharma's personal journey learning Chinese by embracing an alternative view of characters. The character ren (person) is introduced to readers at the start of the book as resembling a walking person. The following page, the character zhong (crowd) is broken down by explaining it comprises of three smaller versions of ren - literally symbolizing that "three's a crowd."

The character huo (fire) resembles a person "raising their hands in distress, as if scared of the flames," Sharma writes in his book. The character chuan (string together) resembles two pieces of meat, while the character ku (to cry) is depicted as two sobbing eyes.

Sharma prefers teaching characters that work as prompters to learn different words. "I don't mean to be romantic, but the character xin (heart) is perhaps the most scalable. Any word in Chinese that has anything to do with thinking or feeling seems to have xin in it," noted Sharma, referring to the Chinese words for "intelligent," "to think" and "anxiety."

"Chinese is based on images and is philosophical and artistic, so it makes sense to use a more inventive approach to learn it," he noted.

Being 'reborn' in China

The book includes an introduction about Sharma's experiences learning Chinese and offers a collection of Chinese words derived from other languages to build readers' confidence. It closes with a brief section of rules to cement the ideas suggested in the book.

 "The book is illustrative, not prescriptive. If anything, it tells people that they only need their imagination and best effort to discover the most enjoyable way to learn," said the author. "I'm not Chinese, so I get what it takes to learn the language from an expat perspective. This approach gave me the much-needed confidence and motivation that allowed me to learn more. I hope that it can help others like me."

Sharma moved to Beijing to try something new, admitting he had grown "bored with advertising" and yearned to live abroad "to work in a different market."

"My original perception of China was that it was very similar to India in terms of development and people's living standards, but when I came here I found it to be visibly and structurally very different," he said.

Sharma claimed he had to be "reborn" before he could actually make deeper cross-cultural observations. "I felt like Tom Hanks in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, when a big shell explodes near him and he loses his bearings. You can only hear his heartbeat as he's spaced out, scared and confused," he said, referring to the 1998 Hollywood war epic. "In my first month in Beijing, I could hardly eat because I'm a vegetarian and I didn't know how to use chopsticks. I could not communicate. Adjusting to China is almost like being born again; you have to learn to eat, talk, read and write as if you were a child."

Five years after he first arrived in Beijing, Sharma is still learning Chinese and holds a new vision. "Learning Chinese has almost given me a new life in China, as I understand and experience a new culture much more than ever before," he writes in his book. "I see China as much more prosperous, coherent in its long-term plans ... but less content than India."

As for his future plans, he is already working on a digital version of Turbo Chinese and would like to add Japanese to his list of languages. "I'm going to be here as long as I'm learning and I'm not bored," he hinted.


Posted in: Metro Beijing

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