March 21, 2007

The Chinese episode

Yesterday I posted an excerpt from J Milton Cowan's brief memoir, "American Linguistics in Peace and at War" ("The Intensive Language Program"). Here's another sample, about a Chinese course that was as intensive for the instructors as it was for the students.

No account of this period should omit our best success story, the Chinese Episode. In the autumn of 1942 one of Mortimer's friends in G-2 came to him and said, "We've got to send 205 ordnance officers to China to train the Chinese in the use of our equipment. How can we teach 'em some Chinese?" Mortimer: "How much time have we got?" -- "Two weeks." Mortimer reflected a few moments and then told him that he thought it could be done if the Army was willing to take a chance. There was a PFC linguist (Charles Francis Hockett) raking leaves at Vint Hill Farms in Virginia just waiting for such an assignment. Of course, he didn't know any Chinese, but he could learn it faster than his students and could go along on the trip using travel time for organized instruction. Having no other choice and probably thinking that Mortimer was crazy, his friend accepted. Buttons were pushed, wheels began to turn.

Hockett was called to Washington for a briefing. The two weeks leadtime was used to send him to Yale, where he conferred with George Kennedy and picked up such materials as George had prepared under Council auspices, and in lining up six Mandarin speakers from the OWI [Office of War Information] in New York and San Francisco to go along on the trip as native informants-teachers. The instruction was conducted on board ship on a full-time intensive basis and without regard to military rank. It would otherwise have been too embarrassing to have a non-com ordering Lieutenants, Majors and Colonels around. The group went half-way around the world by slow boat taking 35 days and then over the hump to China with Hockett managing their Chinese instruction all the way. When they finally arrived the officers were using a respectable amount of colloquial Mandarin and were able to carry out their training assignment.

At the end to the mission, on recommendation of the commanding officer, Hockett was commissioned as First Lieutenant, the only instance that has ever come to my attention of such a reward by the military for a professional job well done. He returned to become Haxie Smith's right-hand man and converted his recent experience into the text Spoken Chinese, one in the Spoken Language Series being prepared and published by the ILP.

But that's not the end of the Chinese Episode. We rushed Spoken Chinese into print. I took the first copies over to the Pentagon the very day General Clayton L. Bissell, freshly returned from China, was giving the arm-chair warriors an account of what real war was like. He had them spellbound with sotries of his rampling in the hinterlands where there was disorganized fighting between the Japanese and Chinese guerrilla detachments. He described how one day his reconnaissance group came up over a small rise in the ground to find themselves looking down the muzzles of a long line of nasty looking rifles. They didn't know whether they were up against Japanese of Chinese guerrillas. Realizing that [if] they were Japanese they wouldn't understand anyway, one of the boys called "wö-men shi-'mey-gwo-'bing", whereupon the rifles were lowered and the Chinese came out for a happy and relieved exchange of greetings.

When General Bissell was given a copy of Spoken Chinese he leafed through it and explaimed, "This is what we need! Send 60,000 copies to the field." So we did.

A couple of years ago , Bill Poser posted a friend-of-a-friend story about a different application of intensive Chinese during WW II ("Language and the war effort", 4/11/2004):

I heard another story from the late Professor Edward Wagner, who learned Japanese in the Army. A friend of his was in the Chinese program, which finished earlier. The utility of Japanese was clear, but since the United States was not sending troops to China, they wondered to what use the Army would put a Chinese-speaking soldier. Professor Wagner soon received a letter from his friend, who was now stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He reported that his assignment was to train mules to respond to commands in Chinese, so that they could be sent to the Chinese forces.

I imagine that the ordnance officers were better motivated than the mules.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 21, 2007 09:29 AM