In this post, language teacher and I’m Learning Mandarin blogger Lingo Geek reflects on the striking parallels between the classic tale, The Man Who Planted Trees, and his own Chinese learning path
Recently I watched a beautiful animation based on the classic short story The Man Who Planted Trees. For those unfamiliar with the plot, it tells the fictional story of Elzéard Bouffier who, after the loss of his wife and child, retreated to a barren, deserted area of the Alps to live an isolated life as a shepherd. Written by Jean Giono, the story starts in the years before World War One when the shepherd began planting 100 acorns every day.
The narrator relays his account of spending time with the shepherd and watching him perform a daily routine of counting out his acorns in the evenings before planting them while taking his sheep to graze after sunrise. In time the shepherd also plants beech trees on the lower slopes where he senses, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there is moisture in the earth.
Several years later, after leaving to fight for his country during the war, the narrator returns to the alps in search of the shepherd and is met by a miraculous scene. The once harsh, barren landscape is now flourishing with tens of thousands of trees. Undisturbed by the conflict, the shepherd had continued planting trees day after day. Over time, he doggedly created a new ecosystem which attracted wildlife and revived the ruined, abandoned villages.
I was immediately struck by the parallels between this charming story and the journey I’m currently embarked on of self-studying Chinese to fluency. In both cases repetition and consistency are the keys to success. Just like Mr Bouffier’s quest to plant a forest, I’ve committed to putting in time every day to studying Mandarin. He knew that with just 100 acorns a day, he could change the world around him. I know that each minute I put into my studies is sewing the seeds which will one day take root and sprout into a forest of fluency.
A few months ago, following hours of flashcard repetitions I reached the point where I was able to read a page of my second ever Mandarin Graded Reader without looking up a single character. This came after hours of dedicated work. But the realisation that I could do something which just a month earlier was impossible seemed miraculous. Likewise, going from complaining I was ‘tone deaf’ last November to finally getting to grips with the 20 Mandarin tone pair combinations in March came after hour after hour, day after day, of repetition drills.
I wonder what kind of response Bouffier would have received from those around him if he’d lived closer to civilisation. An old man walking around an inner city with a spade and a bag of acorns would probably be laughed out of town. I’ve often been asked why I spend so long repeating the same Mandarin tone pairs or even why I’m learning Mandarin at all. However, just like the shepherd, I stubbornly carry on because this is my passion. Practising tone pairs is key to establishing the roots of Mandarin pronunciation before branching out to work on natural rhythm and cadence.
Another trait I admire in the shepherd is that he never sought fame or fortune for his work. Instead he used his wisdom to bring new life to the surrounding area and the people that were then able to thrive there. Learning Mandarin also requires humility and discipline, particularly in the effort it takes to master the spoken language. I have practised for many hours with native speakers and received plenty of honest feedback (sometimes very blunt in nature). And I am doing my best to keep track of my learning so that when I reach a certain level I can help those starting out how to sort their acorns and plant their own trees.==
Bouffier had faith that his plan would work based on his knowledge of the number of acorns he would have to plant to produce x number of trees. He also knew the land and had faith that their was enough water to feed his forest. My Mandarin journey is steadied by faith (based on previous language-learning and over 15 years of teaching experience) that my efforts will bear fruit in the long run.
*Check out the full roadmap on how to learn Mandarin tones in this blog
*For a full guide on recommended apps for learning Mandarin please visit this link
*Join the I’m Learning Mandarin Facebook Community on this link