Why You Should Learn Chinese

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A student practices writing the Chinese character xue, which means to study or to learn

Deborah Fallows and her husband, the Atlantic's James Fallows, are no strangers to life in a foreign country. Over the course of their careers they've upped sticks and moved to foreign lands, from Africa to Southeast Asia. But even their many years as expatriates could not have prepared them for what they would experience throughout their three years living in a country as overwhelming and chaotic as China. In her book, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, Fallows, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from Harvard University, details the struggles and triumphs she had while learning one of the world's most difficult languages. She spoke to TIME about what her study of Mandarin taught her about life in China, the country's dizzying transformation and the value of learning languages.

Why did you choose China?
It just seemed that there could be no possibly more interesting place in the globe right then than China. It was a no-brainer that this would be a fascinating place to be. We had been through China in the mid-1980s and we knew that if we went back it would be enormously different, but also that the country was at a really special moment in its evolution and development.

China in the mid-'80s must have been fascinating.
Back then China was still coming out of the Cultural Revolution. You knew that this was the beginning of a change, but it was unrecognizable in every way. There was very little in terms of commercial life. The stores were empty, the shelves were bare. Everyone was still dressed in the sort of drab uniform of the Cultural Revolution or just starting to wear these really cheap new Western-style clothes. We had our two little boys with us and everyone wanted to touch their blonde hair, pick them up and take pictures with them.

And what was the China you encountered upon arriving in 2006?
It bore very little resemblance to anything we had seen before. You had all of the old and all of the new trying to share the same space. We saw a few old buildings nestled in with 80-story high rises. Fast cars on roads that had been practically empty before. For the first couple weeks I felt like I was hyperventilating. Everything was so fast, so big, so sprawling, so foreign.

How did learning the language change your experience of living in China?
At first I thought it was just going to be functional, to help us through everyday life. But after I got to be a little bit better in Mandarin, I realized that this was changing my life entirely. Daily life remained so overwhelming that I felt like the one place where I had a grip on something was the process of studying this language. Learning the language became my way to understand and explain all these things that I was seeing every day.

Can you give an example of something you learned about China from Mandarin?
Their table manners seemed very normal or even excessively polite. You would never think of pouring tea for yourself until you had poured it for everyone else at the table. But there was a kind of contrast between that politeness and what I would see in public — the pushing and shoving on the street, for example. What I noticed from a linguistic point of view was that the appropriate way to say things in Chinese was to be extremely abrupt even to the point of being rude. "Please" and "thank you" is heard very little. If you're in a restaurant and the waiter asks if you'd like some more water, you just say buyao (don't want) — you don't use any of the normal softeners that make our language polite. I asked some of my Chinese friends, and they told me that in China when you insert words which we consider polite, they consider it as inserting a formality between you and your good friends or family members. It actually sets some kind of distance. So, in fact, saying "please" to your child or "thank you" to your best friend is heard as something that is very formal, very icy and like, "What did I do wrong?"

And how did that help you understand the pushing and shoving on the street?
It helped me understand the pushing to the extent that you think, I also don't understand this. It helps me understand that there is something going on here between behavior and language that I just don't get. It made me want to sort out all the impressions that were going on inside my head.

What do you think is important for Americans to understand about China?
Before we went, I thought this is a massive country of 1.3 billion people and it's like a monolith — one big, unified nation of people who are all moving in the same direction very fast. But after being there on the ground in the country, I learned that it is actually a country of 1.3 billion individuals who are all working in their own personal way to try to make their lives better. The daily life of China is much more like a Chinese fire drill than it is a nation acting in unity. It's important not to be fearful of this country, but rather to learn as much about it. We have less to fear and more to embrace in our relationship with China than we might think.

What about the language? Should more Americans be learning Chinese?
More Americans should be learning any language and more languages, not just one. But certainly for this generation of kids, it would be a really wise choice to start to learn some Mandarin because it will open such a world to them. Not that Mandarin is going to take over the world, but that it will open opportunities to work, to live, to communicate, to understand a country that is going to be so important in our future.