Man ‘Halfway’ to Fluency Through Mahjong Playing

Written by: Theo Erickson

“Learning Literary Chinese through mahjong is as easy as 一二三,” said Scrooge.
Photo by Farhad Taraporevala

University City resident Whitley Scrooge has begun playing amateur mahjong on his computer as the first step in becoming fluent in Literary Chinese written in chữ Hán, a Vietnamese writing system which uses Chinese characters. Scrooge reported, “I’m using the immersion method. If I surround myself with the language, I’ll pick up on it without having to study it.” Scrooge has logged 80 hours of mahjong in the past week, including seven wins. 

Scrooge said that his “language-learning journey” began with mahjong, although he initially “didn’t bother” to look up the meaning of the characters on the tiles. When he did look up how to count from one to nine in chữ Hán, he found that the knowledge not only “healed him spiritually” and “gave him a whole new worldview” but also “really stepped up [his] game” because he could finally match sequential numbers. Said Scrooge, “I’d been matching tiles with only the same picture the whole time, so I had been wondering what the hell my opponents were doing. I thought the computer was just allowed to cheat.”

Scrooge claims that his immersive learning method of playing mahjong is more efficient than even being an administrator in Vietnam during the twelfth century, a time period when Literary Chinese was the official language of the court. “I’ve learned numbers one through nine in just a week of mahjong. That’s as many numbers as a baby administrator learns in three years,” Scrooge said.

Professor Word Al, from UC San Diego’s linguistics department, weighed in on Scrooge’s approach. “It’s ah, it’s, um, it’s definitely…” he said. “Are you pranking me? Is he pranking you?” 

Meanwhile, Duolingo’s marketing and research team has reached out to contact Scrooge multiple times, but they have not reported a response. Patricia Meld, head of marketing, said, “Scrooge has stumbled on a fantastic idea. People don’t want to learn languages, they want to say that they’re learning languages. If we could make a language app with a game that was both skill- and luck-based, maybe Candy Crush, and make your ‘streak’ sound like an achievement rather than a declaration of how many hours you’ve been selling your attention to Duolingow’s third-party advertisers, well… Wall Street has an untranslatable word for this, pronounced ‘ka-ching!’”

Given the profitability potential of Scrooge’s studying method, Meld noted that it was “odd” that he didn’t respond to the division’s emails. “John Flashcard got back to us right away,” she added. 

About Duolingo’s efforts to get in touch, Scrooge said, “Yeah, I don’t open emails I can read. It would mess up my immersion.” He went on to describe his current progress in learning Literary Chinese: “Well, I know how to read ‘green dragon’ and all the numbers, except probably for the weird ones like 11, and 12, and 40. Do I know any verbs? Aren’t those just implied, so you don’t actually have to know them?”

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