Some years ago I read an article in the newspaper that indicated that learning a new language will keep your brain from turning to rice pudding.

At the time I was going to Beijing to be a walk on in the Karate Kid, but that’s another long story. I was on screen for about one nanosecond playing a role I was well suited for, a tired New York businessman, coming off a plane.

When I returned I decided that there were 1.3 billion people living in China that spoke Chinese, maybe it was time to take up a new language. Columbia university has a language school and I thought maybe if I put up a sign with the idea of exchanging English for Mandarin I would find someone. I had taught English as a second language for four years during the 90s.

I found a sign which was put up by a visiting Chinese scholar who was looking for a native speaker to exchange language lessons, perfect. That is how I met Li Mo two years ago. We meet three times a week on Skype, I give Mo an hour of English and he gives me an hour of Chinese. All of which has worked out well but…..
He is brilliant, youngish (42) and spends his days studying English. He started by watching all the Seinfeld episodes and stopping them word for word to translate. He probably already has a 5000 word vocabulary. I on the other hand am still in the very primitive stages of “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” I have a reasonable (read small) vocabulary and the tones of the language as well as what are called quantifiers are a constant roadblock. Mo will say to me “It’s not ting, it’s ting!” the only difference being the tone.

I can go to a Chinese restaurant and order chicken or fish but of course I can’t specify what kind of chicken or fish I want. And then there are the majority of waiters who speak only Cantonese, a dialect that is as different from Mandarin as Russian is from English. But I keep soldiering on and occasionally I will remember a long forgotten word like tao lun which means discuss. Why I remember it is still a mystery.

There is a restaurant, if you can believe it called Chop Stix, over on the corner of route 55 and 82. They are from Fujian province and speak Mandarin. The first time I tried my Chinese on them they looked like I had just arrived from outer space but when they realized I was trying to speak to them, they smiled politely and even responded. I of course understood little but wound up with chicken and rice because those were among the few words I knew.

I am hopeful my brain is still taking advantage of all the exercise it gets from Professor Li Mo PhD!

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