Preface: Are we there yet?

I am Marty Wolff, an American from Seattle, Washington, living in Hsinchu, Taiwan. My career experience is in engineering and law, teaching and communications. As an engineering undergraduate, I made a minor study of linguistic psychology, and the fascination never died. In the mid-'80s I took leave from my law practice to do some community college teaching in the programming/computing field. My experience with the remarkably able students from Taiwan and mainland China lit up my fascination with language and the way that it conditions thinking and learning. I began on a study of Chinese (Mandarin) language and linguistics in 1987. I did not then intend to learn the language; it was my intention only to learn something about Chinese language -- and possibly learn something about how things look through its filters. But I soon recognized that it is impossible to learn much about Chinese language "from the outside." I decided to learn Chinese.

It was my good fortune in the early years of my Chinese study in Seattle to have the guidance of (whose birth name isand who is also known in the US as Professor Nancy Wang). Prof. Wang retired from the University of Washington Dept. of Asian Languages and Literature in the mid-'70s, but continued to teach informal classes as a service to the Seattle community. Prof. Wang provided great reinforcement for my efforts to learn Chinese, but she never required me, nor any of her students, to "re-make ourselves" in her image. She always respected her students' individuality, and she also respected the rather theoretical interest which motivated my Chinese study, and the distinctive learning approaches that I adopted. My analytic learning style, and my resulting endless stream of questions would have driven a lesser teacher crazy. The inspiration which Prof. Wang provided, and my gratitude to her, know no bounds.

During the '90s, in Taiwan, I have continued to choose my own path and resources for the Chinese study. During these years my teachers have included nearly everyone who had the patience to converse with me in Chinese. But I owe very much to the help of (now known by her chosen name), whose profession is in music teaching, and to(also referenced in these pages by the romanization, Mei-Ling), whose profession is in early childhood teaching.

Owing to the linear and analytic learning style engendered by schooling in engineering and law, it has always been my impulse in the Chinese study as well, to seek thorough understanding of each new element of the language as I meet it, and then go on to whatever comes next. But that kind of linearity is rarely possible, because Chinese is too multiply-connected and too different from anything that I have learned before. In the Chinese study, it is sometimes necessary to proceed without building any very solid kind of bridge to anything in the prior learning. For a strongly cognitive learner, the study of Chinese is an adventure in new ways of learning.

Adult learners of Chinese who are able to rely more heavily on "natural" language learning -- such as we all do in acquiring our native tongue during childhood -- are the blessed few*. For the rest of us, development of target-language reflexes is not so natural. No matter how diligently we train the recall and association reflexes, there is still an important stage in the assimilation of each vocabulary term, and each other new element and feature of the language, where we rely on some kind of cognitive structure -- we build bridges from prior learning, and we use those bridges as crutches during the training and development of the spontaneous recall and associations that ultimately produce fluency.

But the "crutches" metaphor is not quite right. Just as the recall and association reflexes that we constantly cultivate can coalesce into fluency, the cognitive structures that adult learners build along the way can also coalesce into a kind of formal understanding of the language. Both the reflexes and the cognitive structures have long-term value in the Chinese language learning enterprise.

If LCCL offers the community of learners and teachers of Chinese something new, then it is owed to the variance of my path from the traditional paths for learning and teaching Chinese. It is unclear whether the unorthodox path has helped or hindered my progress toward fluency and literacy in Chinese, but it has allowed me the opportunity to discover and observe some aspects that ordinarily get short shrift, or go unnoticed, in the traditional processes of learning and teaching Chinese. LCCL is my opportunity to share some of those observations with you, and to have your response.

It is my plan to expand LCCL by one topic at a time, guided always by the hope that the new topic will hold something fresh, interesting, and possibly even useful to other wayfarers on their 10,000-mile journeys. Sometimes, as now, the LCCL mainpage will list some intended future topics as title-only entries. Please let me have your views and responses to any topic on the list. Whether you send me a response or not, thanks for dropping in and looking around!

Marty / April 13, 1998