Ben Borgers

I Misjudged My Chinese Professor

February 25, 2022

A month ago, I wrote a scathing account of my first Chinese class. Which is true — that first class went quite poorly. So poorly, in fact, that of the nine students only six remained for the following class, which was mercifully in-person.

But I want to admit my mistake: I misjudged my Chinese professor. He’s actually pretty great. And those six students have stuck with the class since.

It’s true that he goes around the class cold calling relentlessly, but that’s pretty much how it go anyway if you only have six people in your class. It basically just makes it so I don’t have to raise my hand. Plus, he goes in a circle, so I can look ahead at the slides and guess which phrase he’s gonna ask me to read by counting ahead.

The important thing about him is that he’s super into radicals, the basic “building blocks” of Chinese characters. They have specific meanings, like “fire”, “water”, or “sacrificial tablet”. If you see one inside of a word, it clues you into its meaning.

For example, the fire radical (火) kinda looks like a fire.

My professor loves to break down words for us into their meanings. The explanations actually make for a really good way to memorize how characters are written, because they’re vivid and give the way it’s written an actual meaning.

His broader philosophy is that students shouldn’t just learn the vocab that’s on the paper, but they should learn the individual characters that make up the phrase. That way, when you see the word in other words, you can make a guess as to its meaning.

And it’s actually worked! I’ve started recognizing radicals and characters from past lessons in later lessons’ vocab, and it’s helped me memorize new words.

That philosophy, combined with his animated demeanor and a touch of me not wanting to disappoint a well-meaning professor, has made the class quite enjoyable. I like my Chinese professor.