Nobel Prize Winner Barry Marshall, a science geek, falls in love with learning Chinese

[Source]    Xiamen Daily [Time]    2014-12-25 14:15:59 

To everyone’s surprise, Barry Marshall, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, delivered a speech at the 9th Confucius Institute Conference yesterday. Yet his speech is not about the Helicobacter pylori which won him the Nobel Prize in 2005. Now 63, he is a student of the Confucius Institute at the University of Western Australia.

Barry recounted his story of learning Chinese language in fairly fluent Chinese. He said once he was almost mistaken for a child trafficker and this experience convinced him to learn Chinese. His speech was frequently interrupted by laughter and applause.

1.Learning motivation: be almost mistaken for a child trafficker in China

Barry won the Nobel Prize for discovering that gastritis and stomach ulcers are caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. But previously, it was generally accepted that peptic ulcers were caused by emotional stress and stomach acid. People then didn’t believe that bacteria could live in the highly acidic stomach environment.

Barry said yesterday that thanks to Helicobacter pylori, he got many chances to visit China, because half of the country’s population carried this bacterium. So he started to learn Chinese. But what made him determined to learn Chinese well was an adventure he had in Guilin, Guangxi in China in 1995.

Barry said that he was visiting the Lijiang River with a local doctor called Chen and Chen’s little son at that time. After getting off the boat, Mr. Chen went to fetch his car in a parking lot some distance away, leaving his son with Barry. After a few minutes, the child somehow burst into tears and cried: “Where is my dad? I want my dad.” Barry broke out in a cold sweat. He could not speak Chinese and did not know how to comfort the child who was crying more and more loudly. People who passed by gave Barry a suspicious look. Because there had been several illegal adoptions of Chinese orphans by foreigners at that time, Barry felt that their angry eyes were condemning him and they might think him a child trafficker.

Barry said pathetically, “Just imagine, a foreigner is holding a crying Chinese boy. What on earth is going on?” Hardly had Barry’s voice faded away, the audience burst into laughter. It was then, Barry added, that he decided to learn Chinese language.

2.Learning objective: learn it better than others

Barry is a Nobel Prize laureate, but he has a strong sense of crisis in learning Chinese. He is always worried that others would do better than him.

He had been teaching himself Chinese before he became a student of the Confucius Institute at the University of Western Australia. His decision to study in the Confucius Institute was inspired by a senior alumnus who had studied for some time in the Institute and could speak Chinese fluently.

Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Michael Rudd is also his role model. Kevin Rudd is said to have learned Chinese for ten years. After watching him give a diplomatic speech in Chinese, Barry was more determined to learn Chinese well, and thus he was enrolled in the Confucius Institute at the University of Western Australia.

The systematic teaching at the Confucius Institute helped Barry make rapid progress in Chinese language learning. When he visited China again, he found that he was even able to understand the boarding announcement for him at the airport which was spoken in very soft Mandarin. So he enjoyed visiting China even more.

Soon after, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia became his classmate in the Confucius Institute. The Vice-Chancellor worked very hard and had made big progress. Barry said, “I am under a lot of pressure now, because I cannot let him beat me in Chinese language learning.”

3.Learning method: watch Chinese movies and sing Chinese songs

Yesterday Barry shared his experience in learning Chinese as well. He said that to learn Chinese, one should first learn Chinese characters and then put those characters together. In his opinion, Chinese is more logical than English, “which might be related to the history of Chinese civilization”.

Barry has many methods of learning Chinese. For instance, sometimes he learns it by watching Chinese movies. But the English subtitles moved too fast, he complained.

He also believes that the immersion study is one of the good ways to learn Chinese. The so-called “immersion” means to put oneself into a complete Chinese-speaking environment for two weeks, without any contact with the outside world.

Barry did not forget to learn Chinese even at a karaoke party. When he attended conferences in China, his Chinese colleagues would invite him to sing karaoke with them. They sang together the American folk song Take Me home, Country Roads, and there he learned the famous Chinese saying, “Read Ten Thousand Books and Travel Ten Thousand Miles”.

He said that Nobel Prize laureates would usually enjoy longevity. Therefore, he plans to travel ten thousand miles in China and read ten thousand Chinese books. Of course, he also has a short-term goal, which is to sign his own Chinese name on the medical certificates of Chinese patients.


A “science geek” who drank culture fluid with bacteria

Barry is crazy about learning Chinese, but he is much crazier about doing scientific researches. In order to prove that stomach ulcers are caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, he decided to drink the culture fluid with a great amount of this bacteria to get stomach ulcers.

He finally got his wish. After five days, he showed a series of symptoms such as cold sweat, difficulty in eating, vomiting, and bad breath. After ten days, a gastroscopy showed that the mucous membranes of his stomach were covered with this kind of “curved bacteria”, while white blood cells which had crossed the gastric wall were trying to eat and kill these bacteria – the real cause of stomach ulcers. Barry was wild with joy at the discovery and only agreed to take antibiotics after his wife’s constant persuasion.

Barry’s wife often commented that he acted as a “little boy” most of the time, which he accepted gladly. According to him, the process of scientific exploration is very much like a detective story. You can observe the scene of the crime, speculate what has happened there, search for clues, and then piece them together to get the answer to the puzzle. If you have the characteristics of a little boy, you will be attracted by something unusual and do something different, rather than simply continuing someone else’s work.

Written by/Photographed by: She Zheng/Yao Fan

Correspondent: Li Jing

Click for the homepage of the 9th Confucius Institute Conference


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