Sunday, February 5, 2012

Deborah Fallows' "Dreaming in Chinese": Book Review

This language-learning memoir follows a familiar pattern. Chapters arranged around a linguistic expression are used to take the reader into the mentality of the native attitudes towards expression and mores, while the diligent foreigner slowly figures out meaning from babble and begins to be able to communicate with real people as classroom lessons and tapes give way to actual encounters on the street and in the market.

I have read Katharine Russell Rich's similarly titled "Dreaming in Hindi" (see my review--this book appeared around the same time) and two accounts by Welsh-language learners built on the same motif. It's a sensible one, if not exactly novel. What Fallows provides is less personal and slightly more distant, as she plays up her own language learning with less drama or introspection, focusing more as a reporter from China back to us, learning to speak and read Mandarin. 

Fallows writes simply, in efficient prose recalling more a business executive than a florid essayist. She accompanies her husband, journalist James Fallows, and her reports from China echo those he might have written for "The Atlantic" magazine. However, with a doctorate in linguistics, one might assume Ms. Fallows brings to this small work a greater familiarity with language structures and comparative analogies.

Therefore, I was somewhat surprised that she did not do this much. Her accounts focus more on people and how their expressions reveal cultural distinctions. The doubling of a word common in Asian languages, the blunt manner of address, and the imperative tones, she reasons, work better to convey immediacy as intimacy and the lack of a formal distance between speakers than they do rudeness, as a Westerner might assume.

A chapter on how Chinese employs compound structures to combine a root with a nuance begins unexpectedly, with "danger" all around her in Shanghai leading to a consideration of how its derivation from "small heart" convinces Fallows of its relevance. Another chapter begins with "message" and unfolds into an exploration of the writing of characters, given that Chinese has 400 syllables vs. ten times that in English. A final chapter, the most poignant, shares her viewing of small and great acts of kindness after the great quake in 2008.

While I never learned how many characters (as opposed to syllables) exactly are in Chinese, I did come away from this little volume with a greater appreciation of how the language and the culture work together, and why (perhaps) the people resist a further simplification of their ideograms after Mao's imposition. Tonal nuance and subtlety of communication as people write in the air or their palms the characters necessary to clarify meaning in conversation provides a telling example of how the written and the spoken combine as if half-invisibly in ways foreign to those of us growing up with English as the "other" dominant language. (Amazon 1-28-12).

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