I am often asked how I learned to speak/read/write Mandarin Chinese. The short answer, in my case, was a combination of good fortune and hard work.
Part of the good fortune is that I have a brain that seems purpose built for language study. I enjoy logic problems and code-breaking, which is a perfect skill set for figuring out how a language works. Every language has its own logic, which is internally consistent but unique; to adjust to a different grammar properly means adjusting to a whole other way of thinking. I am also musical, with a very good ear – which helps with mimicking the very different sounds of other languages. It is especially helpful for tonal languages like Chinese and Thai. I also have good rote memory, and a particularly visual memory – very helpful for characters.
Another big part of the good fortune is how early I started Chinese. It has been a part of my life since I was 11 years old (that’s 19 years, for those counting). That wasn’t by design – it was a series of coincidences. It all started in 1994. Starting in grade 7 all students in Australia are required to study a foreign language (or at least in Canberra at the time). The options at my school were Japanese, German, and Chinese. My mother had studied German in school, my sisters were studying Japanese in their primary school, so I chose Chinese – the only language no one in my family could correct me in!
The first year was fun, but then our (Australian) teacher moved to China and the replacement was ill-equipped for the task. I still feel sorry for him! In grade 8 I spent more time learning Malay/Indonesian from my TCK friends than studying Chinese. The next year my family moved to the US, and since Asian languages weren’t taught in school (my sisters were studying Japanese and Indonesian at this point) Dad’s company paid for tutoring. For the next two years I studied Chinese with a tutor who came to my home. She was my first native Chinese speaking teacher; she was from Wuhan and studied at a university in Shanghai, but had been living in the US for over a decade. We got along well and I have many fond memories of our lessons. I seriously doubt I would have continued Chinese without her influence.
Back in Australia to start grade 11, my new school was chosen partly because it offered advanced Chinese classes. I went into an “intermediate” level class with a teacher I really liked. In grade 12 I had an opportunity to travel to China with a school trip – it was a sort of teacher exchange, and a few students tagged along. (I’ll have to tell that story another time.) I fell in love with China – for no real reason. Something about the place just grabbed me. Lots of things were hard or unpleasant (like air pollution and bad smells) but somehow I could look at the negatives and without discounting them still love the place. I knew I wanted to go back. This was September 1999; it would be more than 4 years before I returned to Beijing.
I had just applied to study Asian Studies at university, with the option of a study year in China as part of the degree, and the trip made me very determined to do that – especially when I sprained my ankle in Beijing. I remember lying in the hotel room while others were out in the city, thinking “I’m going to get into that degree program, get the grades to qualify for the study year, and spend a WHOLE YEAR here so it won’t matter that I missed these few days!” After 9 years, I’m pretty sure I’ve made up for those lost days. So, a big point in the “good fortune” category – I studied Chinese for 6 years before I first decided I wanted to do something with it.
In university I finally started to really work on my languages. I had the freedom to indulge my interest in languages, taking 3 years of Mandarin, a year each of Indonesian, Korean and Thai, plus one semester each of Cantonese and Arabic. For almost my entire degree I was studying two languages at once. I also took a year of linguistics, which absolutely fascinated me! If I’d discovered it earlier I may well have switched to a degree in linguistics, or done grad work in the field. Although given how my life has turned out, I’m glad my direction didn’t change back then.
This is where the hard work began to kick in. Most of my daily 40 minute bus ride to university was spent drilling vocab for one language or another. I spent hour, upon hour, upon hour, writing out lists of vocabulary, re-writing hundreds of characters, and creating my own flash cards to test myself with. I spent lots of extra time on whichever words wouldn’t stick easily. Hundreds of hours. Hundreds of pages filled with handwritten characters. I remember making my own boxed paper in small notebooks I would carry with me, writing out as many unique characters as I could remember – even doing this on holiday in Malaysia by the pool! I remember when the goal was to hit 500 characters, and when it shifted to disappointment if I couldn’t hit 500.
The last Chinese class I took in Australia was “Readings in Modern Chinese Literature and Thought”. The class was taught in Chinese and half the students were native Chinese speakers. Every two weeks we would study a different piece of Chinese literature from the 20th century; at the end of the two weeks we had to write a 500 character essay answering a question about the piece. On the “off” week in between we had to watch an assigned movie in Mandarin and write a 200 character response to a given question. Over the two-week teaching break we had to write a 1,500 character essay comparing and contrasting two short stories by the same author. It was a very difficult class, not made easier by the fact that one of the three weekly Chinese lectures came for me immediately after three hours of Korean classes!
By the time I arrived in Beijing in February 2004, I could already read and write Chinese pretty well. My spoken and listening skills, however, needed work. I’ve always been more of a visual learner; I learn a lot better by reading than by listening. Listening comprehension in Chinese took me a long time.
When I showed up at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) I was given a test to see what level I was at. I was stunned when, ten years after first beginning Chinese, I was placed in the second TERM class level. Not even second semester – second TERM! I was offended, actually! Flipping through the textbook I had been given, I realised I could read the entire thing. I went to the office to insist on being placed in a more advanced class. I was told that there was nothing they could do right now – I had to try it for a week before they would let me move up. After 15 minutes of arguing I gave up, determined to be back in a week’s time – if not earlier.
I arrived at my first class to discover that I really, really liked my classmates and teacher. My teacher was studying toward a PhD in Chinese linguistics and had some great helpful hints about pronunciation. I remember thinking “It will be sad to leave these people”. Then, on the second day of classes, we had our first listening comprehension class (听力 ting li). It was the most humbling moment of my education. I was struggling to get 4 out of 10 questions in each set right. More often it was 2 out of 10. Phrases and sentences that were so obvious to me when written out in characters completely eluded me when I didn’t have a visual reference. I suddenly realised – I need to be in this class.
Having realised this, I got to work. I made a new goal for the year’s study: I would know each and every character and grammar point inside and out. Rather than slacking off because I could read better than anyone else in the room, I worked harder still, wringing out every scrap of knowledge I could. And I worked hard to catch up in ting li class. It was horrible. I hated it. I hated feeling so stupid. But I worked, and worked, and worked. Ting li classes were the most frustrating and depressing 4 hours of class in my 20 hour week – but I hardly ever missed. Slowly I started getting 6 out of 10 more often than not. I started hearing the nuances in the sentences. I started being able to hear it and understand it in Chinese – without the need to translate in my head. I was worried about passing the ting li exam at the end of the semester, but it was easier than the in-class exercises and I scored well above the 70% pass mark.
An unexpected bonus of the situation was what a difference it made to wholly understand all the basics. I had had 7 different teachers in 5 schools (in two countries!) in the ten years I’d studied Chinese. I often pushed to skip ahead, relying on my ability to work things out rather than completely understanding each piece. As I went over foundational basics of the language, with time to spend really understanding all the pieces (since I already knew the characters) I began to understand Chinese on a much deeper level. Grammar patterns I had been using for years suddenly made sense! Instead of grasping for ways to translate my English thoughts, I began to understand how to form Chinese thoughts.
Another thing I learned, in my second semester, was Chinese cursive handwriting. My teacher in the first semester wrote very neatly and precisely. My teacher in the second semester wrote very naturally. This meant that sometimes we didn’t understand what characters she had written. I made a point of studying her handwriting. After 6 months in China and many trips to post offices and other places, I already realised that ordinary handwriting didn’t look like typed characters – much like any language! So, I studied my teacher’s handwriting. Every time she wrote a shorthand, I copied it down from the board. I learned how to scribble characters much more fluidy and quickly, skipping and simplifying the right pieces. I learned the cursive conventions of native Chinese writers.
I took my final exams in January 2005, which marked the end of my formal studies. At this point my Chinese was conversational, but certainly not fluent. My tones were still a mess, which meant that often I had to repeat myself a few times before I was understood. I could think in EITHER Chinese OR English – never both at once; I was convinced that therefore, while I could translate, I would never be able to interpret. And when I got tired I had great trouble getting Chinese out, and what I did string together was clunky.
So, what changed? Short story – more hard work, but with a different kind of teacher in a very different kind of classroom…