Communications Executive Libby English shares some of the challenges faced in learning Chinese in Beijing in her blog partnership with China-New Zealand Year of Tourism.
As I come to a close on my fourth month in China, I am preparing for my final first semester exams at Peking University. I thought I would reflect on my last four months and speak candidly about expectations versus reality.
Firstly, I thought I would talk about my progress with my Chinese. After all, it is the whole reason I am here! I have been facing many questions along the lines of “wow, can you speak Chinese yet?” or “is it really hard?”. I think it would be fair to say this was probably the biggest example of expectation versus reality.
I came here aware that it would be extremely challenging and to be honest, I often received many sympathetic words like, “you’re really going to have an awfully challenging time, you know how hard this will be right?” before leaving New Zealand. I would often reply with,“yeah, but it’s all I’ll be focusing on and for the first time in my life I have just one task to focus on, learning Chinese!”, I was scared but I knew I could do it.
For better or for worse, I think it is safe to say that Chinese is an impossibly hard language to learn and coming here without knowing even simple vocabulary like ‘yes’ or ‘no’ definitely put me on the back foot. I think there this perception that if you move to a country to learn its native language, it will come to you very fast. My first piece of advice; if you wish to come to China to learn Chinese, take a course beforehand or at least familiarize yourself with the language.
For me, it is my genuine passion for China, Chinese culture, people and language that makes this worth it. I think you need to have a big “why” and remind yourself of that every day.
Having said that, I feel a great sense of achievement in the fact that I can now sit entire tests in Chinese, understand brief conversations on the street and read and write in characters! Once I realised that learning a language, especially Chinese, doesn’t come overnight, everything became a lot more manageable.
Studying Chinese is so rewarding as you are essentially learning two languages. You have to memorize how to say a character, how to spell it and then remember how to write and read the characters. Do not even get me started on tones! The two ‘languages’ are Pinyin and 汉字。
Managing expectations is essential. Celebrating the little victories and realising the progress you have made is so important. Not being able to converse effectively is definitely frustrating but realising you can communicate with a few sentences is not to be understated!
Alongside the reality of trying to learn a language, my first second language, there is the hard reality of settling into a new country and lifestyle. I feel like I have only recently settled in and feel like I finally have my feet on the ground. Sitting in a small classroom all day (repeating the same activities) and sharing a room has been a big adjustment for me
Also, I’ve got to say it again, the Chinese are the hardest working people I have ever met. Trying not to compare yourself becomes a constant internal battle and there is a significant sense of guilt in trying to find balance. We like to say in Kiwis “work hard, play hard” but this is not a concept that exists here.
Upon reflection, the whole experience really has been worth it. I feel so unbelievably privileged to not only have the opportunity to learn such an interesting and useful language but to gain a cultural education that one simply cannot enjoy unless living here.