The Foreign Service Journal - April 2014 - page 39

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
|
APRIL 2014
39
The life and work of Herbert Allen Giles
offer insights for many Foreign Service
members—particularly those who embark
on the kind of linguistic journey Giles
undertook as a young diplomat.
BY PHEBE XU GRAY
FEATURE
H
erbert Allen Giles (1845-1935), per-
haps best known for his association
with the Wade-Giles transliteration
system, was a British Foreign Service
officer who spent 25 years in China.
After retiring from diplomacy, he
became the second professor of Chi-
nese at Cambridge University.
Giles initially took Chinese as a job requirement. But after
mastering the language for that purpose, he pioneered the disci-
pline of Chinese studies and was a prolific author of numerous
textbooks and articles on China’s language, literature, culture,
history, arts and philosophy.
It would be unfair to compare Giles with today’s U.S. Foreign
Service officers, since he spent his entire diplomatic career in
China and Taiwan. Nevertheless, his story proves that it is not
Phebe Xu Gray is a language and culture instructor in the East Asian
and Pacific language department at the Foreign Service Institute. The
views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not repre-
sent those of FSI or the U.S. Department of State.
HOWH.A. GILES
LEARNEDCHINESE
only possible for an adult to learn Chinese, but to be remarkably
successful.
With that in mind, here are some possible lessons for FSOs
preparing for language-designated positions.
Discover Creative Ways to Learn the Language
After completing his studies at the Charter School in Oxford,
Giles passed the competitive examination to be a student inter-
preter for the British Foreign Service. Immediately after arriving
in China in 1867 as a 22-year-old, he distinguished himself by his
untraditional approach to learning the language.
There were very few textbooks available for Westerners to
learn Chinese at that time. Giles was not entirely satisfied with
the recommended textbook,
Yu Yan Zi Er Ji
, considering it as
an “ill-arranged and pedantic primer”—an assessment that
would become a major point of contention between Giles and
its author, Sir Thomas Wade. So he set out to learn what the
Chinese were reading and how their children attained literacy.
Giles purchased books on the street, and started by memo-
rizing a classic primer,
The Three Character Classic
. He then
taught himself to read Chinese literature by using dictionaries
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