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How Do You Say I'm Lost in Chinese?

An old Chinese proverb sums up the three months I spent studying Mandarin in Beijing: To suffer and learn, one pays a high price, but a fool can't learn any other way.

The famously difficult Chinese language could make a fool out of anyone. Standard Chinese, known as Mandarin or Putonghua, has tens of thousands of characters, many taking more than 20 strokes to write, and a transliteration system called Pinyin that expresses Chinese words in the 26-letter Latin alphabet of English.Further complicating matters, Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning that the same Pinyin word has four definitions depending on the intonation.

More than 20% of the world's population speaks Chinese. But while studying it last year at Beijing Language and Culture University, I often wondered how Chinese children ever learn it. Generally, I felt like a child, or at least deeply humbled. But on those rare occasions when I could read a sign or tell a cashier I didn't have any small change, I felt like Alexander the Great at the gates of Persepolis.

You don't learn Chinese in three months -- or at least I didn't. Basic Chinese at the Monterey-based Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center is a 63-week course. But spending a semester in BLCU's short-term, accelerated program struck me as a good way of getting to know Beijing, which had proved elusive on my first visit 10 years ago, chiefly because I couldn't communicate.

BLCU specializes in teaching Chinese to overseas students. But there were many other schools in Beijing to consider because the demand for Chinese language training is growing exponentially. The Chinese Ministry of Education estimates that 40 million people around the world studied the language last year. Moreover, China's popularity among American exchange students increased 90% between 2002 and 2004, and 35% more in 2007.

A Chinese professor at my alma mater, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, recommended BLCU, a state-approved institution founded in 1962 in the leafy university district of Beijing. It was the right choice for me, as it turned out. It's near the academic powerhouses of Peking and Tsinghua universities, and it is well-known to taxi drivers.

The school has a student body of about 15,000, a third from China studying to become Chinese teachers or preparing for careers that require a foreign language. Like American college students, Chinese undergraduates at BLCU play sports, party and call home to ask their parents for money.

The rest of the students come from more than 120 countries around the world and generally pay their own way. They have to hit the books hard just to keep up in accelerated Chinese class, where the approach is known as stuffed duck.
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The Los Angeles Times, 1/6/08