In 2016, I enrolled in a short-course to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese, and lots of my friends asked why? After all, I still not mastered English language yet and my aphasia and speech problems definitely is not perfect.
The motivation of starting this course is my neurosurgeon Dr Peter Hwang ie, the man who saved my life four years ago. Peter was trained in Australia, Singapore, Germany and the United States for Neurosurgery. Peter is fluent at Chinese (Mandarin), English, German and French and he thankfully was working at the Alfred Hospital when my stroke happened.
He explained to me that in order to help my brain to recover, I should try think outside the box and keep challenging my brain by learning a new language. He suggested mandarin as it’s unlike any language I would ever have tried to learn before and will really make my brain work very hard. He explained that it’s one of the hardest languages to learn, especially to read and write. Learning chinese will be really challenging but beneficial, and speakers use both sides of their brain therefore it will possibly acceleration of my recovery. I thought, no way, he’s crazy, I can barely speak my first language now you want me to learn a completely new one, and one of the hardest ones?!? But, saying that, he took a chance on me, so why wouldn’t I listen to his advice.
I was born and raised in Australia so my first language was English but, at school I studied Hebrew for eight years, two years of Japanese and one year of Italian at Uni. I always liked languages - especially travelling in other countries and I tried to conversed with the local people.
It is many cognitive benefits to learning a second language for the brain - especially with young children at the critical stages of developing - eg Intelligence, memory, listening skills, better focus, attention, concentration also delay ageing; but it’s never too late to learn in adulthood also. I was open-minded with Peter’s recommendations because I was desperately wanted and needed to improve my brain fitness and quality of life. I lost brain cells after my stroke and I was very keen to experience new challenges and continuously using my brain.
With Monash Health’s help, I found a seven-weeks course at Holmesglen Moorabbin. The course deals with spoken and written modern Mandarin Chinese and Pinyin was used. Pinyin is the Romanisation of the Chinese characters based on their pronunciation. In Mandarin Chinese, the phrase “Pin Yin” literally translates into “spell sound.” In other words, spelling out Chinese phrases with letters from the English alphabet.
But before starting the course, I was very keen find a partner/friend who 1) is interested in the course; and 2) help me with (physically) write and understand the teacher’s instructions. Enter my friend - Marc.
Marc is a long-time friend, he knows my stroke history and he sometimes travels in China for business, so this course was perfect for me and Marc because he is expanding his Chinese vocabulary for work also. This stage I was driving but the course was two hours - every Wednesday (6:30-8:30pm) - I was little bit anxious to drive after the sessions because not sure to cope with more brain energy - especially at night - so Marc offered to drive.
The first lesson was a eye-opening experience. We met the teacher - a lovely lady called Xiao Lan Wang - and five or six individuals also starting the course. There were around eight students to start with but some dropped off. The teacher started introductions - two real estate agents wanting to sell more houses; A man wanting to learn so he could speak with his girlfriend’s family; Another who has Chinese family background but couldn’t speak and wanted to reconnect, and Marc and me. At my introduction, I briefly explained what happened to me, and the teacher was very accommodating for me and my disability.
After the introductions, we were straight to it. We never realised that mandarin is a tonal language so that was a challenge as if you got the tone wrong then the meaning changes even if the pronunciation of the word is otherwise the same. It was a totally different structure than what we are used to. For instance, the syllable ‘ma’ in Mandarin can mean ‘mother,’ or ‘horse’ depending on the pitch pattern of how it's spoken. After two hours the first lesson I was thinking... I am in trouble :). At least my brain was working because after every session I was tired.
After one or two sessions, we found a groove (or method) in the sessions - basically Marc wrote/copied the instructions at the whiteboard, he wrote notes his worksheet also and after that he gave [the info] to me via phone messages. Also Marc helped me with repeat things in the classroom and after at home I always did the homework.
We learned of the pin-yin system, tones and pronunciation, normal daily conversations, numbers, currency, occupations, nationalities, families, dining out at the restaurant, festivals, Chinese culture and customs, and reading short passages in pinyin.
A big hurdle in the course was my retention - or working memory - because I still have difficulty in learning new information and problems in conceptualising and generalising. This problem is a side-effect of my stroke - irrespective of the language. At the course, I easily forgot new Mandarin names and phrases because the pathways in my brain was still weak, therefore neuroplasticity was very relevant for the course.
Sometimes it was difficult to keep up with the pace in other students but luckily - with the Marc’s help and technology (Eg. Google translate or learning to mandarin apps etc) - we were able find a way and navigate the issues and complete the course. It was a team effort and, in fact, Marc’s missed one session but my sister-in-law (Lani) very generously substituted for Marc in this session - thanks Lani! The course was jam-packed of good information and we learned heaps.
I chose a short course because I was hedging my bets because I was uncertain to like the course or not. Overall it was challenging, stimulating, fun and I like the course and, in fact, I am thinking about to repeat the same course on the future and strengthen my pathways in my brain - or possibly a different language (time permitted!!) but the course was definitely a worthwhile pursuit because “learning a second language is our ultimate brain training exercise”.
Thank you very much for reading,