Learning the Language

Mandarin will enhance professor’s China research
Sarosh Kurravilla
Monday, March 30, 2015

ILR Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla is learning Mandarin at the London School of Economics during his sabbatical year.

In an interview this winter, he shared his motivation for learning a new language and the experience of returning to the classroom as a student.

What made you decide to learn Mandarin? Does your decision relate to your research?
Many reasons. First, my central interest is in labor relations and labor relations is becoming more important in China, which has more strikes than most countries -- not a well-known fact -- and where collective bargaining is growing, rather than declining, as in much of the world. If I am to do research there, I would need the language. Second, it is a useful language to learn as China is important geopolitically and it is good to engage with China. Third, learning a new language at my age is good for my brain!

What do you find most difficult about learning Mandarin, and what do you enjoy the most?
It is a very difficult language to learn as it requires the memorization of a large number of Chinese characters. I figure it will take me two or three years of constant study to become proficient at reading and writing. Also, learning to use the different tones is a challenge.

Why did you choose to go to London to study Mandarin rather than in a country where Mandarin is the dominant language?
I have had a long association with the London School of Economics and thought it would be good to be situated here to explore whether ILR could expand its footprint to do something in Europe.  And they have a very good department that teaches languages.  I could have started studying Mandarin at Cornell, but I found it difficult to get into the Chinese language classes here.  Besides, a sabbatical leave is a good time to invest in learning something new. I will probably spend some time in China over the next couple of years for more intensive language study.  

What is it like being a student again? Has your experience being back in the classroom inspired you to change your teaching style in any way?
It is a wonderful experience to be at the receiving end of the classroom and it reminds me of the many things I could probably do better. And, I have a better idea of why so many students have difficulty finishing homework when they have full schedules. It is also a humbling experience … I am not at the top of my class.