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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

The Rigors of Learning a New Language

Lesson 1 for "Running" (From "River Town")

Asia, China
Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12
Cross-Cultural Understanding, Foreign Language, Language Arts & Literature, Service Learning, Social Studies & Geography

Students will consider the immensity of the the task the author undertook to learn Chinese.

About the Story

"Running" is excerpted from Chapter Three of Peter Hessler's memoir, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. Hessler describes his experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1996 to 1998 in south-central China. He discusses his adjustment to life in China as a Peace Corps Volunteer and the challenges, in particular, of trying to understand and learn Chinese. Hessler describes his relationship with his Chinese language tutors and his determination to learn despite his discomfort with local teaching methods, which rely on criticism rather than praise. Hessler also addresses his participation in the Annual Long Race to Welcome Spring and how that challenge relates to his struggle to learn the language.

Dean Fu, in the story, is identified earlier in the memoir as Dean Fu Muyou, head of the English department at the college where Hessler taught.

About the Setting
China, the fourth-largest country in the world in area (after Russia, Canada, and the United States ) has a population of close to 1.3 billion. Beijing, the capital, has a population of more than 13 million; that is 5 million more than New York City and 9 million more than Los Angeles.

China is divided into 23 administrative provinces. It has one of the world's longest rivers, the Yangtze, and it shares the world's highest mountain range?the Himalaya?of which Mount Everest is a part. The climate ranges from desert to tropical to subarctic.

With one of the world's oldest civilizations, China has a written history of more than 4,000 years. The country has had a long history of being wary of foreigners?and for much of its history it has been isolated from the outside world. To this day, the Chinese term for foreigner, waiguoren, has negative connotations in many places.

In 1993, the first Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in China to assist in a teacher-training project. Volunteers have taught at more than two dozen colleges and institutions across southwestern China. The primary goal of the English education project is to teach English to students at teacher-training colleges, who plan to become English teachers themselves upon graduation. To learn more about the work of Peace Corps Volunteers in China, go to the country-information section of the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov.

About the Chinese Language
A major portion of "Running" addresses how difficult it was for Hessler to learn Chinese?and his dogged determination to conquer the task. Students will better appreciate the author's challenge if they understand the complexity of written and spoken Chinese.

The Chinese language encompasses seven major dialects. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mandarin Chinese, spoken in Beijing and its adjacent provinces, was mandated by the government to be China's official spoken language. Seventy percent of China's population speaks Mandarin Chinese. Other dialects, such as Cantonese and Shanghainese, are completely different spoken languages. Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible. The province of Sichuan, where Hessler lived, has its own dialect, Sichuanese, which was initially problematic for Hessler, since he had been trained in Mandarin Chinese.

Even without the issue of dialects, spoken Chinese is one of the most difficult languages for Westerners to learn. It is a tonal language, in which the tonal inflection of a word changes its meaning. Spoken Mandarin Chinese has four common tones, which can be applied to the same general sound to effect four different words and meanings.

Chinese also is difficult for Westerners because the written language is based not on an alphabet but on symbols, called characters. The Chinese language has more than 50,000 characters, most of which are known only to scholars. However, even reading a newspaper or a book requires a person to know between 3,000 and 5,000 characters.

About learning Chinese, Hessler wrote: "In good conscience I could not live there for two years and not learn how to speak Chinese. To me, this was as important as fulfilling my obligations as a teacher."


To examine the rigors involved in learning another language—particularly one as notoriously difficult as Chinese
To compare aspects of Chinese culture, such as teaching style and treatment of foreigners, with those in the United States

  • Waiguoren: [wy-GOOR-en] Chinese for foreigner, or someone from out of the country
  • Ambivalent: [am-BIV-uh-lent] Having mixed feelings about someone or something
  • Skittish: Easily excitable or made nervous
  • Cadre: a member of a small leadership group
  • Stick-stick soldier: A porter or laborer in China who carries heavy loads in freight yards or construction sites on short, bamboo poles (sticks) tied together with rope
  • Blurt: To speak suddenly, often without stopping to think first
  • Cagey: Shrewd; sneaky; crafty
  • Voyeurism: [voy-ER-ihz-em] Watching other people, especially secretly
  • Propaganda: Ideas or information spread specifically to promote one idea or point of view exclusively or to discredit another one
  • Trite: Unoriginal, stale
  • Cant: meaningless talk or communication 


  • "Running" by Peter Hessler (see link above)
  • Map of China (see link above)


  1. Have students skim the essay, recognizing that there are several sets of Chinese characters. Ask the students why they think the sets change in composition [from mostly Chinese characters to English words] through the course of the essay. Then have the class take Hessler's selection home to read overnight to be ready to work on it the next day. Students will profit from reading the piece straight through in order to balance the section on learning the language with the section on running.
  2. Have students review the linguistic areas of China described by Hessler, and then ask one or two volunteers to come to a map at the front of the room to identify the areas of China in which Mandarin, Sechuan, and Shanghainese are spoken. In the paragraph beginning, "In addition, Sichuan is an enormous province ... ," the author states that lack of development in road and rail transportation had resulted in vast regional differences in dialect. Ask students why that would be so. Even without the limitations imposed by rudimentary transportation, dialects can be remarkably distinct between adjacent, small regions. Can students identify such areas in the United States? [In New England, the Maine accent differs from that in New Hampshire, which, in turn, is distinct from dialects in Massachusetts. Even little Rhode Island has regional dialects distinct from those in neighboring states.]
  3. Ask students what problems Hessler encountered in studying Chinese in Fuling. [The language has characters instead of an alphabet; the language is tonal; dialects differ from place to place; the teachers' philosophies were unsympathetic and unrewarding; local citizens made fun of his efforts in speaking the language.]
  4. Ask why Hessler worked so diligently to learn the language, when he could get by with English and the little Chinese he already knew when he arrived. What are the author's incentives for learning the language?
  5. What are the students' own experiences in learning a second or third language? How were their motivations similar to, or different from, Hessler's? Did their experience in being taught the language resemble Hessler's?
  6. In class discussion, compare Hessler's experience learning Chinese with what the students imagine it must be like learning English. Students in your class from other cultures, who might actually be learning English as a second language, might add significantly to this discussion. What do students think might be the more difficult aspects of learning English? [Point out that, unlike English, Chinese is tonal and has characters rather than the English alphabet, and languages such as French, German, and Spanish have endings and forms that distinguish genders. Although English does not have those features, it is particularly difficult because it is often not pronounced as it is spelled, and similar spellings do not necessarily denote similar pronunciations. As an example, show students how "-ough" is pronounced differently in the words bough, cough, dough, rough, through, and hiccough. Also, there is a clever poem titled "The Chaos," by Gerard Nolst Trenité, which illustrates extensively the vagaries of English pronunciation. The poem, which is likely to be popular among students, is available on the Web and can be located easily by searching for the alternate title "English Is Tough Stuff."]
  7. If you know a speaker of Chinese or speak Chinese yourself, introduce a lesson on Chinese language, especially tones and written characters. A speaker of Chinese could demonstrate tones and teach a few essential words.
  8. Discuss with students how the local Chinese on the street treat the waiguoren, and why they act so rudelyfrom Hessler's point of view. [Possibly because they have never seen a Westerner, and certainly a Westerner who speaks Chinese.] Do students think the people on the street consider their own behavior rude? How did Hessler respond to the pointing and shouting? How do the students think they themselves might have responded to being pointed at and shouted at?
  9. Ask students how Hessler's language teachers Teacher Liao and Teacher Kong differed from teachers he might have had in America. Do students think the Chinese teachers' approach would work in the United States? Why, or why not?  

Frameworks & Standards

Enduring understandings
  • Learning the language of another culture helps in understanding that culture and in being accepted by the people.
  • Cultures differ in their approaches to teaching and learning.
  • Achieving one's goals takes persistence and determination.
Essential Questions
  • Is learning another language worth the effort? Why, or why not?
  • What does it feel like to be an outsider?
  • What factors affect how hard it is to learn another language?
  • What does it take "to belong"?

English Standards: 1, 2, 6
Social Studies Standards: I, IV, IX
National Geography Standards: 4, 6, 9, 10
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Appendix (pdf—160 KB, linked to above).

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