There are some people who have really made friends with the Chinese language and it comes out of them so naturally that you need a double-take to make sure they are not Chinese. I was so inspired by these people’s ability that I decided to interview them for some tips and wisdom to help the rest of us on our journey towards fluency.
Nationality: South Africa
Learning Chinese for: 9 years (on and off)
Chinese Proficiency: Fluent
What made you want to learn Chinese?
In 2006 I was in high school and one of my friends said, “You know, I wanna start learning Chinese,” so I thought, “Well, I’m a little smarter than him, and I don’t want him to learn something that I don’t know.” Actually, I had always thought that China was somehow fascinating. So I thought, “Lets just give it a try for kicks.” Lo and behold, 4 months later my friend said, “Oh, this is too difficult!” and he left, but I stayed on.
How did you get to your present level of fluency?
After high school I went to Taiwan for 3 years for the express purpose of studying Chinese. I learnt in traditional characters because I believe they are better and simplified characters are inferior in every way. No, that’s just a joke – it depends on what your goal is.
When I went back to South Africa I carried on learning Chinese at University but I sort of stagnated. The program wasn’t particularly challenging. What I did find a challenge was the simplified characters and the Mainland idea of how things should be expressed as opposed to the Taiwanese idea.
That program was helpful in the end because it enabled me to come to China and speak in a way they would understand. I got a scholarship to study in Mainland China so I have been studying here – doing other things – but keeping up my Chinese on the side.
What was the hardest component for you to grasp when learning the language?
For me speaking was the hardest thing because I was scared to open my mouth. Many people speak English in Taiwan, so it was easy to get comfortable. China does not have that luxury.
It was only after 2 years that I really got confident, because in the beginning I didn’t use Mandarin as a communication tool. I think the most important thing is you should always be willing to make mistakes.
I fell in love with writing and I got good at it quite quickly. I still suck at reading out loud – it’s true. Listening is very easy for me; it is probably the easiest thing.
What methods helped you learn faster?
One of the things I did (that I should do more often now actually), is that I had a list of 10 new words every day. These were words that I encountered in daily life – not from a textbook. In the evening I would write the list out and in the morning I would write them out again. Then I would review the words from the day before. If you are doing that every day, that really gets your language skills up.
One of the other things that I did was I had a clipboard in my bathroom and I would write the characters I learned in class on the clipboard every time I was in the bathroom for a longer time if you know what I mean. Just put it into your daily routine somewhere if possible.
The other important thing is to make Chinese friends and not spend all your time with foreigners. Just make time to invest in those friendships. It’s about making sure you invite them to dinners at your house and going to sing KTV with them. Make sure that you put that effort in to spend time with them because your language skills will improve.
What was the most enjoyable part of learning Chinese?
The feeling that you get when you accomplish something – that is definitely the most enjoyable part. Like when you go to your friend’s family for Mid-Autumn Festival or something and you can have a great conversation with the grandma, and everybody’s joking and you have a good time.
Also another enjoyable thing is when you sit down and look at a newspaper and you realise you can read that article.
I’m a bit of a geek, I enjoy the characters, and I really enjoy writing them out.
Do you have any words of advice for people who find Chinese difficult?
Take it one day at a time. I remember in my 6th month of learning Chinese I felt overwhelmed and I didn’t know if I could do it. But if you just take it one day at a time; it is going to come.
Some people aren’t gifted linguistically, and if that’s you and you are in China and you have to learn something, then just set a goal for yourself for some very basic things. I think everybody can learn languages. Just set yourself some basic level survival Chinese goals and build on them one step at a time.
Just remember: you are never going to finish studying Chinese! Ever! It is too old of a language – it’s too much. There is never going to be a point where you reach that perfect fluency, like a Westerner could with French or Spanish. That’s not to say you can’t get really good, but it’s a lifetime journey.
It’s the same for Chinese people as well – they have grown up referring to ancient history their whole lives. Unless you have grown up in China it is going to be very difficult for you to know all the references all the time. But don’t worry about that, you know, just set yourself a goal, step-by-step.
What difference has your Chinese proficiency made in your life?
A language is not just a language: it’s a belief system, it is an entire way of seeing the world, it is a culture. I grew up in South Africa where we were very much stuck in in a certain way of seeing how the world works, even though we are a multicultural country. And when you come to China and learn the culture, you see that you can do things in different ways and it gives you a greater breadth of human existence. That has been the greatest gift for me, to have a broader perspective.
I have also felt a certain combination of emotions that don’t exist in the way Western language makes you think about things. It has shown me that there is more than one way of doing something.
The fact that I can communicate with so many more people on this planet also is a great gift.
This article was featured on Chinlingo.com (an online platform for learning Chinese).