After 31 years of teaching Chinese at Carleton, Professor Mark Hansell (Mai Lao Shi) is retiring this spring. Throughout his time at Carleton, Hansell has taught 100-level Chinese classes, in addition to several Chinese language and linguistics courses. Hansell will now spend the next two terms on sabbatical, during which he plans on researching writing systems and moving to Hawaii. Former students Charlotte Nahley ’23 and Helena Lee ’23 sat down (virtually) with him to discuss a range of topics, from Hansell’s beginnings as a college student excited about language, to his favorite TV shows and Carleton memories (and most importantly, the character he identifies with most from the Chinese textbooks).
HL: So where are you from originally, and what was it like living in a college town in Minnesota?
MH: I grew up in Connecticut, in Windsor, just North of Hartford. Then I spent grad school in California, and I sort of ended up in the Midwest and went, “Wow! This is darn interesting.” I didn’t know places like this existed, and I thought only in movies and TV shows do they have, you know, quaint little Midwestern towns with white picket fences and all that, but this is pretty nice.
Northfield’s great cause you know, there’s so much culture and everything that would not be here if not for the colleges.
HL: So, how did you end up at Carleton?
MH: Oh man, that’s quite a story. By accident, actually. I was about to finish grad school, and I was looking for jobs. I decided I would only look for tenure track jobs, and Carleton didn’t advertise one, so I didn’t apply. And then I went to this conference and shared a room with this other guy to save money. He ended up sharing a table at breakfast with Katie Sparling from Carleton, and apparently, he was talking about me.
He said, “Oh, this guy, he speaks really good Chinese. Are you looking for a new teacher?” She replied, “Well, in fact we are”. So I got this message saying, “Carleton College wants to talk to you.” I came for an interview, and they said that it was actually a tenured job, they just didn’t advertise it that way. So I ended up at Carleton, which worked out perfectly because it was the perfect place for me.
There are two stories I tell about how randomness determines the course of your life, and that’s one of them. The other one is that I only took Chinese my senior year of college because Japanese and Arabic didn’t fit in my schedule. So if my schedule had been different, I would have been, I don’t know, an Arabic teacher. Who knows.
CN: That’s a perfect segue into our second question: what was your experience of learning Mandarin, and when did you start?
MH: Let’s see, I’d taken a bunch of German and French already. I was a linguistics major, and I would hear about interesting and bizarre features of other languages. I just thought, “Ah, French, German, English, they’re also similar. I want to learn something different.” So I ended up taking Chinese. I was pretty bad at the beginning. My tones were terrible.
HL: What drew you to linguistics and learning Chinese?
MH: I started out in high school where I took French. My junior year, I had this really boring teacher who sucked all the fun out of it. I said, “Oh, this sucks, I’m never going to take a foreign language again.” But then I heard about linguistics and got interested in that. Linguistics is all about these complicated rules that you follow without knowing it. It’s totally unconscious, and yet you do all this stuff. The idea that “Oh, you would actually know what’s going on in other people’s brains, even though they didn’t” seemed kind of like a superpower, like x-ray vision or something. And then I figured, “if linguistics is interesting, languages must be too.” So then I started taking German and then Chinese, and then Japanese. Hawaiian is next.
CN: What languages can you speak, and is there something about language learning that interests you?
MH: Well, I sort of rank them as English, very well, Chinese pretty well, Japanese, mediocre. Taiwanese, less so, French and German, I’ve forgotten a bit of. Although, I can still read French well, I just don’t speak it as much. Language is like a very complicated puzzle. And it all fits together, sort of interlocking in a way. It’s like taking apart a complicated piece of machinery and seeing and how it all works.
Plus if you succeed at learning it, you can communicate with people. It really makes you think about things a little differently when you hear people expressing a concept in a totally different way than you’re familiar with.
HL: What’s your learning style and what is your teaching style?
MH: Well I’m really bad at memorizing stuff, but I know it’s extremely important in learning a language, so I sort of pound my head against that. When I learn, I always try to relate what I learned to stuff I already know. Knowledge is a network, and the more different things you can connect it to, the easier it’s going to be to remember. My teaching style is kind of similar. I always try to teach through analogies. It makes language easier to remember if you remember that “oh yeah, that’s like something I already do”.
Like in my linguistics class, I have all these analogies that I’m sure people get sick of, say, “the aspirated “P” is like Superman and the unaspirated “P” is like Clark Kent, and they’re actually one and the same person.” And if that doesn’t work, I drive in another analogy and another until people finally get it.
CN: I had another professor this term who also used Superman as an analogy. It was something in computer science, which is cool because they’re both types of languages, but they’re also very different. This next question is related: do you have any tips about learning languages or just learning in general?
MH: For languages, memorization is extremely important. Just because when you’re going to use something in another language, it has to be on the tip of your tongue. But also, the more different ways you can use something, the easier it is to remember. So when people are learning Chinese, I always tell them: don’t just write the characters over and over again, write phrases using the character so that you’ll know how it’s used, not just what it looks like, and pronounce it as you write it. Connect it to as many different things as you can. And I guess my other tip is to talk a lot. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I mean, you should worry about what you sound like, listen to yourself, but don’t let that stop you from talking to people.
HL: Alright, these next few questions are less learning-related. Do you have a pet?
MH: I don’t have a pet. Our plan was to move to Hawaii after I retire. My wife’s from there, so we would go back and have a nice spacious place where we could get a dog and all that, but we can’t do that right now because everything’s on hold. So no, I don’t, but I kind of wish we did. There’s a dog in my future, but not in my present.
CN: This is another kind of sillier question that every Carleton student wants to know: Burton or LDC?
MH: Oh LDC. Definitely LDC.
CN: Correct answer. The other part of that question is, what is your favorite food?
MH: Oh, man. Well, a good caramel milkshake is really hard to beat.
HL: What’s your favorite form of entertainment, or what are your favorite TV shows?
MH: Oh let’s see, my favorite TV shows. Rick and Morty, though there are hardly any new episodes these days. I have seen all of them many times. The Expanse is really good, and I cannot miss American Ninja Warrior.
I spend a lot of time playing the guitar. I used to play all different stuff, but now I play some country or country-ish things. Sometimes I play really anything that comes to my mind. I play a lot of songs that I used to know, and I gradually figure out chord structures that go with them.
CN: Do you think that your interest in music is related to your interest in language?
Mark: I wonder about that. Probably. One thing that I think has allowed me to learn languages fairly well and teach languages fairly well is having a good ear for listening, and sort of analyzing the sounds I’m hearing. So that helps in both.
What are your sabbatical plans, and how have they been affected by COVID-19?
MH: Oh, well, my sabbatical plans have been to, first of all, rest up, because the last term was just really busy. I have some stuff I want to do, but none of it involves traveling anywhere, so it hasn’t really been affected.
Eventually I have an idea for a study I want to do about writing systems and how they change when they go from one language to another. It’s sort of a very long term thing. Now that I have time, I’m making a lot of progress under reading a Chinese science fiction trilogy I started last year.
It’s very weird to go from teaching every term for so long to, really, “Wow. I don’t have a lesson to prepare for tomorrow.” It’s so different. I’m getting used to it. It’s going to be very strange at the end of August. Because every year I would go, “Oh my God, classes are going to start and I’m not ready, I’ve got to prepare my syllabus and all this stuff.”
So I’ll have that little jolt of fear and then realize I actually don’t have anything to do.
CN: So what are some of your biggest takeaways after all these years of teaching?
MH: I’m extremely lucky. That I found something I was good at that was also useful and valuable and that I found a place that. It was all sort of random the way I stumbled into this whole thing.
But you know, I found something that I really liked doing. A lot of people don’t. Well, especially a lot of people in linguistics, they sort of looked down on language teaching. A lot of people think that teaching, first year language is no fun, but really I love it. Because that’s when the most happens, right?
Carleton students are the best. You may have heard that before, but they’re not lying. And people who have taught at other places often come to Carleton and say “man these students are great. Wow.”
CN: What do you think makes them so great?
MH: It’s an unnaturally dense concentration of nerds. [Laughs]
So, right. Consider right at high school, you have all kinds of different people. There’s a small group of really brainy nerds and other kinds of people, and you just skim those off the top and put them all in one place. And, uh, so yeah, I mean. There it’s, I think curiosity and willingness to, willingness to work at it in order to get, get better.
Carls are really curiosity and have an openness to new experience, but not for the sake of competition or outdoing anybody
HL: Who is your favorite character in the Chinese textbook?
MH: I’d have to say Ma Dawei, no doubt.