Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Repeat After Me:

I asked Matthew Kirschenbaum, who is a musician and a student of Mandarin, now living in Xiamen, if he thought his musical background helped him with learning Chinese. Here is his interesting answer:

Yes, I think for sure being a musician helps with the hearing. I actually did an experiment some time ago in a Chinese listening class, where I volunteered to recite back a full paragraph. My Chinese was not anywhere near what it is today (which is still pretty bad!), but I approached the exercise just like I did in music school training class.

In music school we had to sing back by ear multiple phrases from  Bach inventions -- perhaps as many as 20 measures at a time. I took that training and recited back perfectly the complete paragraph the teacher spoke. I knew I had only about three seconds to complete it. The class was amazed, but when they asked me questions about what was being said in the paragraph, I had to confess I had absolutely no idea what the paragraph was about. I was simply listening to the tones and the rhythm. It was a cool exercise-- now if I could just understand what everyone was actually saying!
Yes, it is amazing! 

You can see a video clip of Matthew performing in a mixed Chinese-Western group here.  And you can read about his Zai Circle, a musical bridge to cultures.

(photo from


  1. Hi, I've just spent some time reading through your blog. It's a very interesting experience to read about how an (adult) foreigner feels about learning Chinese (a foreign language in general). I began to learn English when I was in elementary school (just like many of my contemporaries) so technically I haven't been an adult foreign language learner. But I've been considering learning a new language for a while now and hopefully will try to pull it off soon. Your blog certainly has helped me prepare mentally, thanks a lot!

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