Learning Chinese So Far

It’s been a long journey to get to where I’m sitting today, and I’m not talking about the 10 hour plane journey. I’m in my third year of studying a Chinese degree and at times it has felt much longer. There was a lot to pack in to the last few years and it’s had its highs and lows. Let me take you through how I got to where I am today.

One of the most common questions I get is ‘Why did you choose to study Chinese?’ Funny you should ask. This is a story my mum delights in telling because the decision kind of came out of nowhere. Picture this – it’s September 2015, peak uni open day season. My mum and I are visiting the University of Edinburgh, my top (and only) choice, and are sat in a Modern European Languages talk. At that point in time my plan was to (hopefully) go to Edinburgh and study French and Spanish. I also already knew that I would be going to Honduras for a year between finishing high school and starting university.

That was when it hit me. Why was I going to spend four years studying Spanish after a whole year speaking it, teaching in it, living in it and, if all things went to plan, essentially becoming fluent in it? Knowing myself and what I’m like, I knew I would get bored doing that – I like a challenge too much. I turned to my mum and threw that curveball at her (I think she’s still recovering).

Me circa September 2015

I’d always said that if I was ever to take up a third foreign language that I would want it to be something different to what I already have, as French and Spanish are both European, romance languages. With this in mind, our first stop was Japanese studies but unfortunately there was no option to do a joint honours with French, which I was still set on studying. With Arabic and Persian also an option, it was Chinese that I was drawn to next, not really for any particular reason. I like that it is from a different area of the world, uses a different script, is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and the fact that it is notoriously difficult was also attractive to me!

Two years later, I was ready to start studying Chinese and French at Edinburgh University, just as I’d hoped. In that time I’d gone from knowing zero Chinese to being able to say ‘ni hao’ (hello) and count to ten (then I actually learnt how to count to ten and found out I had been doing it veeeeery wrong). Overall still not a lot.

Lucky for me, the course at Edinburgh contained a real mix of abilities. There were people who could speak it fluently (or so it sounded to me) but couldn’t write, people who had spent a year in China already so could do both pretty well, some who had studied it in school as well as others like me who had never done any. This meant that we got stuck straight in and learnt a lot very quickly. Sometimes my progress in Chinese feels frustrating, like I’m not improving as fast as I should or want to, but then I think about just how far I’ve come in such a short time and I’m pretty proud of myself.

During this time, I’ve obviously had to get to grips with the four basics of Chinese, and any language – reading, writing, speaking and listening. I definitely find the reading and writing side of things easier but that’s where I’m hoping this year in China can help improve my oral Chinese. Alongside the expected grammar and vocabulary lectures, one of the classes I had that was more specific to Chinese was character writing. The way Chinese characters are composed is complicated, fascinating and confusing all at the same time and is something I want to talk about more in another blog. For now, I will say that I should have appreciated this class more at the time because in hindsight it was teaching me a lot of really valuable skills, not just the correct way to write the characters but how figure out what an unknown character might mean.

My spread while mid studying

One of the things I’m asked a lot when people find out I study Chinese is ‘Isn’t it really hard?’ It is a difficult language, there’s no doubt about that. The grammar is completely different (though it’s a myth that Chinese just doesn’t have any. It might have come out of the fact that there are no verb conjugations and the verb also doesn’t change to express the tense either) and there’s also the tones to consider. Using the wrong tone can completely change the meaning of something – for example, ‘mai’ (买/卖) can mean both buy and sell, depending on what tone you use.

But in general I usually say that it’s not the difficulty that gets to me the most, its the amount that there is to learn. Every time you learn a new word you have to learn it 4 times over – how to say it, what tones to use, how to write it and what it means. Exhausting, really.

As well as learning the four main elements of the language, I’ve had a few extras added on to my Chinese journey. In first year I had to take a Modern East Asian History course which was useful in contextualising a lot of China’s recent history, societal structures and international relations. There was also my Classical Chinese class in second year. Is it possible for Chinese to get any harder? The answer is yes, all you have to do is go back a few thousand years. As much as I complained about it all year, it was actually quite a useful class in exposing me more to traditional characters as well as allowing me to study texts from some of China’s most treasured philosophers, such as Confucius, Zhuangzi and Mengzi (孔子,庄子,孟子).

Another compulsory course I had to take was Academic Skills for Asian studies. This was not one that I look back on with fondness but I did get one very interesting thing out of it. The very last session of the year was about reflection. I was thinking about my motivation throughout the year, the reason why I went to every single lecture, would not miss a tutorial for anything and put so much effort into my independent study. At the start of the year it was all out of fear. I was scared I would fall behind my already last place position and never be able to crawl back. I worried that I wasn’t good enough. I was terrified that I couldn’t do it. It had been very overwhelming to begin with and I think I got a bit lost in that for a while. But then, slowly but surely, my motivation changed from fear to enthusiasm. I settled into studying such a different language and the adaptations in my learning style and techniques that I’d had to make to accommodate that. I learnt more and became more sure of myself. I also realised that I had definitely made the right decision. It turns out that my love for languages does extend to Chinese.

Dalian at sunset

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