So many times people have come up and tried to speak to me in Chinese. This is always a bit awkward as I just have to apologise and explain that I don’t speak Chinese. But it’s not an unfair assumption to make as I am ethnically Chinese, but apart from that I’m all British! Of course this isn’t the only reason I want to be able to speak Mandarin fluently, but it might help!
The main reason I decided to go to China last summer was to take part in an intensive language course. I used to learn Mandarin when I was younger, but stopped in sixth form to focus on my A levels. It seemed a shame to have studied for most of my life and then just give up, so I decided to go back to learning, and where better to start than travelling halfway across the world and immersing myself in the language?!
I was nervous about arriving in China, and having nut studied Mandarin for 3-4 years, I also knew my speaking and listing skills were nowhere near as good to keep up with the ridiculously high speeds that everyone talks at! In an attempt to prepare myself for the trip I found that the Chinese Society at my University offered 2 hour weekly Mandarin classes. I joined the society and went along to first class, there were only three other students in the class and it was taught by a postgraduate student training to teach Mandarin as a foreign language. I was really nervous before the first class, but am so glad I went!
It was nice to become more familiar with the language again and it made me feel more confident about going to China. I also made friends and found out the teacher is from the same province I was from, so she told me lots of information about the culture and traditions there. Before the term ended one of the students and the teacher invited me to go for Chinese one evening which was really lovely; the food was delicious and our teacher recommended lots of dishes for us to try that I never would have thought of ordering before.
Learning Mandarin in China couldn’t have been more different to having one class a week in England with the only commonality being the language! My friend Hannah and I would have 4 hours of one to one class a day, as well as homework and conversing in Mandarin in daily life (you can read about my homestay experience here). By living in China we got to learn and experience the culture as well, and picked up little phrases and colloquial speech nuances that aren’t taught in textbooks. It may sound silly but being in China made the language feel more real. I felt more comfortable and natural speaking Mandarin than in England where it would sound unusual to hear coming from my mouth.
We had the same teacher for the whole four weeks, which I hadn’t expected, but it was so nice to be able to get to know our teachers personally; they were so lovely and we made really good friends with them. It was nice to have lessons tailored to your individual needs and what you wanted to get out of learning the language. I focused a lot on speaking and listening to help me communicate day to day with people. I really liked that I could ask my teacher, Lily, how to say something I wanted to used with my host family, or sometimes we would just chat in Mandarin, which was really interesting. I think I learnt more from this than just ploughing through the textbook. I really miss this teaching environment now that I’m back at uni and only studying Mandarin as one module alongside my course in a class with about 8 other students.
On a typical day we would have 2 hours of class in the morning starting at 8:30am. After that, Hannah and I would get the 107 bus to the school’s office building (which was on the 21st floor!) where we would do some work, have lunch and chat to the other students. The cost of lunch was included in the price of the course, but sometimes we’d buy lunch and go and explore, or sit in the park. We’d then get the bus back to the classrooms for afternoon class 2:30-4:30pm. After class we’d walk back to the bus stop together, sometimes stopping off at the shop to get snacks.
In the evening I would revise the lessons we had learnt and prepare for class the next day as much as I could, but just talking with my host family helped even more; I found I could put what I’d learnt into practice. Sometimes I would go in early as it was cooler in the mornings and to study before class, usually picking up food on the way!
At school I was never particularly good at languages (although this may have been partly due to the fact that I missed a lot of language classes for music… so was never very popular there!) but studying in China felt so different. It felt nice to always be learning, after class I’d be talking to my host family in Mandarin, or conversing with shop owners or at the market. There was a sense of satisfaction in being able to use what I’d learnt, instead of just studying because I had to, or just to pass an exam. This was something I’d wanted to do, and travelled across the world to do it.
The whole experience was so amazing, and I think I gained a really good work ethic. It makes me sad that I lost a lot of the language so quickly since coming back to England, just from not being constant surrounded by it everyday, but I know that if I go back it will (hopefully) come back a lot quicker! I would love to go back soon, and my aim is to one day become fluent.
Have you travelled to learn another language?