Learning Chinese: a process as much as a challenge

[Bŭ lěi nà is my Chinese name for those who are wondering.]

It is with a good reason that the phrase, “[He] might as well have been speaking Chinese”, is employed in instances where the listener is truly and utterly perplexed. This is a phrase that I have come to hold in a whole new light in the past three months.

Before embarking upon my travels to Taiwan I never actually put much thought into the reality of learning Chinese. This was down to pure laziness because, had I been even slightly bothered, I could have harnessed all the many resources offered by the world wide web and tried my hand at some self-teaching.

But I didn’t.

Instead I languished in my blissful ignorance. So ignorant was my bliss I decided to enrol in the intensive learning class.

I lasted two days before switching to the regular version.

Before Starting Class

This period of “blissful ignorance” enjoyed its short-lived existence before Chinese classes begun. Unbeknownst to me at the time, for that two week span I had the best of both worlds: although locals were burdened with speaking to me entirely through my native tongue, because I had come to Taiwan to learn Chinese I couldn’t be categorised as a haughty, uncultivated foreigner. Should someone misguidedly attempt conversation with me through Chinese, I would simply smile a simpering smile, cock my head to the side, shrug my shoulders and sigh, saying, “Sorry I don’t speak Chinese, I start classes soon.”

On December 1st 2015 this period of bliss came to a shuddering, coughing halt. It was replaced by a daunting realisation of the immensity of the challenge I faced. I knew learning Chinese was going to be difficult, I’d be an idiot not to, but having never attempted to learn it I didn’t have a concrete grasp of the practical difficulties that awaited me. It remained a remained a fanciful idea not quite existing yet in my reality, vague enough not to perturb me so I could easily swat away the frequent comments alluding to my recklessness, politely referred to as bravery.

During the first two weeks of class I sat with a perplexed expression fixed on my face. It was an accurate depiction of what was going on inside my head. Alien words and characters were being thrown and me left, right and centre. Where one word began and the next one ended was a mystery. Characters that I had spent all night scrawling all over my notebook like a love struck teenager in an attempt to memorize them eluded me the following day. I felt hopeless, and honestly, a bit thick.

Three months in I can thankfully say my Chinese has improved. I no longer constantly look nor feel like at total dunce in class (or if I do, I cannot altogether blame it on my lack of Chinese). With hindsight, I can reduce my difficulties to two overarching problems: The first is the difficulty in itself of learning Chinese; the second is the difficulty learning Chinese in an Asian culture. Their combined effect means that my experiences learning Chinese over the past three months have been as much a process that needed to run its course, as a challenge that needed to be overcome. Unexpectedly, I learnt a lot about myself.

The Challenge of Learning Chinese

Initially there is a steep, steep learning curve, the immensity of which I wasn’t prepared for. Just like every other language you need to learn vocabulary and grammar, but learning Chinese also involves learning pingin (the Chinese characters written using alphabetical letters as you would sound them out), memorizing the characters, as well as paying attention to the tones. There are four tones in the Chinese language (mā má mǎ mà), which dictate how the tone of your voice should rise and fall as your pronounce each word. Employing the incorrect tone could be fatal because many of the same words take on an entirely different meaning, depending on what tone accompanies them.

The other major challenge is learning the characters. Each week I am required to learn a list of 40-45 words or phrases. In addition to our weekly end of chapter test, I also have two dictation tests based on the new vocabulary. Considering each word involves learning the pingin, the character and the tones on top of the meaning, this is no mean feat. It requires diligent study, which admittedly was a shock to my system. Having only recently graduated from college, I had grown accustomed to working according to my own schedule towards one major, looming deadline as opposed to a constant, daily grind of work according to the teacher’s plan.

Slacking off is more pain than it’s worth. As each lesson is taught using the new vocabulary, unless you’ve learnt the characters by heart you’ll be lost, something I found out the hard way.

Learning Chinese the Asian Way

It was in the classroom that I experienced the culture shock of moving to a different continent most severely. And the stereotypes are more true than they are false.

The less independent thought the better. Questions are not encouraged. The commonly Western used phrase, “There are no stupid questions,” most definitely does not apply. “Most questions are stupid” would be more accurate. You’ll know by the teacher’s expression how she rates your question. If she finds it exasperating, she won’t conceal the fact.

Another difficulty my classmates and I experienced was the linear quality of the teaching style. Our teacher endeavoured to teach us using as little English as possible, so new vocabulary was often taught through gestures, imitations, and sometimes sound effects. At times it felt like we were in play school or playing a never ending game of charades. Sometimes these attempts just didn’t land, because what was obvious and singular in meaning to her simply wasn’t for us. Our Western trained minds considered things from various angles, leaving room for speculation, so we failed to arrive at the “foolproof” answer she had intended.

Countless times I would sit in class feeling the frustration rise within me because I felt as though I had been propelled back in time to primary school. Despite the low number of people in the class and given we were all adults, there lacked the sense of informality that usually resulted when similar situations arose in college. We were all very aware that she was the teacher and we were the student. This sense of authority was projected through her teaching style, which from what I have gathered, is particular to the school rather than her own personal preference. Obediently we would listen to her reading out sentences in an exaggerated style, and then on command chant them back, our voices colliding in a jumble of incorrect tones.

I remember during my second day of the intensive class (which, by the way, was also my second day learning Chinese ever) the teacher simply listed out a flurry of words, which it turns out were the numbers 1-10 in Chinese. She then turned to us expectantly, awaiting us to recite them back, which somehow everyone but I managed. This was followed by an exercise where we called out our phone numbers out in Chinese and wrote one another’s down. As each word raced past me I desperately tried to connect it to a number, but my brain churned too slowly to keep up with the rapid pace. Luckily I wasn’t desperate to get the number of anyone there, because my efforts were utterly futile and I sat there wearing a dazed expression. Confusion then turned to mild indignation at how much was expected from us mere beginners, and I glanced around the classroom hoping to register similar expressions on the faces of my classmates, but to my dismay I was the only one.

The range of emotions flashing across my face was apparently comical because it caught the teacher’s attention. Not to help me, God forbid, but to launch her career as a comedian. Much to her and everyone’s amusement, she proceeded to mimic my facial expressions, eliciting laughs from my fellow classmates. Luckily I have thick skin and by that stage my fate was sealed: I was switching to the easier class. Having succumbed to the hopelessness of my future in that class I managed to see the funny side.

I talked to one of my classmates after class, wondering how on earth he had managed to keep up with the accelerated pace. It transpired that he and most of the other students had already undertaken Chinese in some shape or form, so I was the only real beginner in the beginner class. To give you an idea of how fast we were working through the material, he said that what we covered in a three-hour class was equivalent to what he had covered in half a semester of college. I left that conversation feeling better, me ego somewhat assuaged.

What I learnt about myself

Anyone who has spent even just five minutes in my company knows I like to ask a lot of questions. Pointless questions, random questions, intuitive questions – they cover a broad range. Similar to an irritating child, it comes from my desire to understand why. I spent four years studying philosophy so it’s understandable. When it comes to studying in a Taiwanese classroom “why” doesn’t often enter the equation. You are presented with information within a specific context, you learn said information within the confines of that context, and then when prompted, regurgitate it back. Compared to my experience learning other languages, there is much less emphasis on learning the mechanics of the language and instead much more is placed upon learning phrases off by heart. I, on the other hand, want to strip a phrase down and understand why those particular words were used and why in that particular order. Memory having never been my strong suit, I find it much easier to learn by understanding the underlying logic.

During the first couple of weeks I could see the teacher getting visibly frustrated by some of our questions, perhaps mine in particular. One day she wanted to talk to me after class, like a naughty child being reprimanded after school. The conversation went like this: she told me she could tell that I was a perfectionist (ding ding full marks there), that I want to understand everything, but in fact this is the wrong approach when it comes to learning Chinese. Instead I should learn as a child would, not worrying about making mistakes. Rather than tripping myself up because I don’t understand one part of a sentence, I should conceive of it it as a whole and elicit from that its’ general meaning. I took her advice on-board, and with good spirit too. In fact, I was grateful. It allowed me to free myself from the questions that had been weighing me down.

Her words echoed in my mind the following days. They brought with them the realisation that my approach to learning Chinese reflected the manner in which I approached tasks, and life in general. Unbeknownst to her during our three-minute conversation she had provided me with life advice. I guess I’m not that mysterious after all.

In some ways learning Chinese is like taking one of those personality tests you find online, revealing the inner workings of you mind. For example, when learning characters some people remember the simple ones easily but forget the complex ones, while others are the opposite. No surprises, the complex characters sit much longer in my head.

The next week I came to class with a totally different approach. Keep it simple. Unless I actually didn’t understand something I would keep my meandering questions to myself. The rest I would find out in due time. That’s not to say I’ve preformed a lobotomy and removed my inquisitive nature. The questions still bubble up inside, but I’ve learnt to recognise that in certain instances they can act as an impediment. While in most situations curiosity should be encouraged, for those two hours each day where my world consisted of Chinese characters in a classroom in Taiwan, it was making my life harder than it needed to be.

It also instilled in me the importance of a strong work ethic. I had almost resigned myself to the fact that learning 20 characters in one night was beyond my ability, but realising that the dictation tests were going to come twice a week whether I liked it or not, I would have to find a way. So instead I turned my attention to figuring out what specifically was causing me problems and adapted my study method to tackle this. It lead to a noticeable improvement.

The objective of this article was not to vent (well, maybe a little), nor moan about having to learn Chinese, nor criticise my teacher. Actually, once I came to terms with everything I’ve mentioned, mainly embracing that I was learning a hard language in an alien culture, things became much easier. I no longer went to class grudgingly, dread oozing out of every pore, but I began to enjoy it. So I guess finally, and maybe most importantly, I learnt the virtue of patience. Rather than working towards an unrealistic and self-imposed deadline, which only adds unnecessary angst, give yourself the time and the space to improve. Things didn’t get better straight away and it still is arduous at the best of times, but eventually they did. I’m not sure at what point it happened exactly, but gradually people started commenting that my Chinese had improved. I reached a turning point.