A couple of years ago, I went on a tour of the lovely Freer Gallery of Asian Art in Washington D.C. If you ever find yourself in D.C., please do go check it out. Like many of the museums on the National Mall, it is totally free to the public and has an incredible collection that is presented beautifully. Also, this museum has one of the best gift shops of any museum I have ever been to (although that may just be the result of my fascination with all things Asia)!
While browsing through imported silk scarves from Japan, coffee table books about Chinese tea, and silver jewelry from Nepal, I stumbled upon a small paperback entitled “Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language” by Deborah Fallows. Since I had studied Chinese language for four years at that point, I decided it might be an interesting read and bought it on a whim. This book is a fascinating account of the author’s experience learning Mandarin while living in Shanghai, and it thoroughly catalogues both the triumphs and pitfalls of acquiring such a difficult language. As a student of Mandarin myself who has also spent some time in China, I found that I could relate to the author’s experiences, especially the humorous accounts of mixing up tones to sometimes disastrous results! It is a rather short read, but I found it both accurate and insightful. Deborah Fallows has a Ph.D. in linguistics and speaks six languages, so she writes from the perspective of a professional linguist. Even though this book is specifically focused on learning Mandarin, I found it very accessible and the author’s journey will resonate with anyone who is interested in linguistics, languages, or Asia in general. It was particularly inspiring for my own study of Mandarin, and I hope it will inspire others to begin learning Chinese as well. I find that, too often, people assume that Mandarin is extremely difficult almost to the point of being impenetrable, and give up before they even begin to learn about it at all! Hopefully, people like Deborah Fallows can attempt to change this pattern by inspiring and encouraging people to take up Mandarin as a second (or third, or fourth!) language.
If you’re interested, check out this NPR review and excerpt from the book.