My Chinese Learning Philosophy


Two years into my Chinese learning journey, I am often asked for advice from those looking to start theirs. People often want to know what drives me to keep learning in spite of how difficult the challenge seems. 

Through conversations with numerous Mandarin scholars I have learned that people can be divided broadly into three camps, as regards their motivations. The first camp contains those who have noticed the economic rise of China and believe that learning Mandarin will secure them great wealth and prosperity. Second, there are men who wish to impress Chinese women. And third, there are those who enjoy the process of language learning so much that doing so serves as an end in itself, requiring no additional rewards. 

Those who fall into either of the first two camps - and there are a great many - invariably fail in their quest. A single introductory class should be enough to convince the most materially driven pupil that there are surely easier ways to make money. As to those men who wish to impress Chinese women, this motivation will rarely survive the knowledge that ignorance of the native tongue need not be a significant barrier to wooing a local bride. A friend in Taiwan describes a lamentable phenomenon which social scientists refer to as 文化霸權 (wenhua baquan) - translated as 'cultural hegemony' - whereby many Chinese girls buy into the prevalent ideal of western superiority when choosing a partner. 

So my answer to those who ask why I am still learning Chinese two years after starting is that I fall into the third camp. I do not think that Chinese will make me rich nor do I hope that it will enhance my chances of wooing a Chinese wife. But I have found my learning experience rewarding enough to continue applying effort.

Learning Chinese involves the development of four key skills which, while not entirely unconnected, are sufficiently distinct so as to make it unlikely that an individual will be equally adept across the board. These include: listening, speaking, reading and writing. From very early on I discovered that my main aptitude lay in the second of these; speaking. During my introductory course my lively teacher would throw words, phrases and basic grammar points at us in a more or less chaotic fashion. After each class I would try and organise what I had learned in my head by attempting to construct my own Chinese sentences. The following class I would impress my teacher by conversing with him using material he had taught me, a process I found thrilling. 

In retrospect I call this desire and ability to create original sentences out of limited vocabulary my "ticket". It was through discovering the joy of doing this that I sought out native speakers who I could impress with my party trick during conversation exchange meetings. These conversations and the friendships which arose out of them increased my confidence swiftly and immensely. Moreover they drove me to spend time on aspects of language learning which I enjoy less, such as reading characters and listening.

Some readers may be surprised to learn that speaking and listening are very different skills. Nevertheless, this is true. I find it relatively easy to get across what I want to say, much harder to comprehend the native's response which typically arrives back at me at the speed of light. Other learners often express the exact opposite problem. Some are masters at swiftly and efficiently deciphering the code that that is Mandarin, either when listening or reading, yet placed in a social situation where they are required to respond and they become mute. Their "ticket" is therefore different to mine. The aspect They most enjoy is comprehending what others have said or written. Yet the end result is the same; the learner is motivated to continue learning and in time will improve those areas which require more effort to refine. 

My advice to the prospective Chinese scholar is therefore quite simple. Do not use imagined external rewards as your primary source of motivation. In the short term there won't be any and in the long term they aren't guaranteed. Instead find your ticket - the spark of enjoyment at a particular aspect of language learning which will provide you with valuable fuel. Learning mandarin involves such a wide variety of aptitudes - from the visual to the verbal - that there is bound to be a way in for everyone.

Finally, remember that the most demotivating thing you can do when climbing a mountain is to look up toward the summit. Doing this will remind you of all that you have left to cover. Instead you would be wiser to focus your attention on the process, while periodically looking down to remind yourself of just how far you have come.

Then take a moment to congratulate yourself, and rejoice. For two years on you are one of the few scholars to have stayed the course. Now it's too late to give up.

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