What pushed me into learning Chinese.
Welcome to my first article for my blog chinese -seriously.com
Climbing the mountain
I am now learning Chinese seriously. Finally. It has taken a pandemic to give me the push I really needed to climb this enormous mountain.
Why are you learning Chinese? Without fail, people ask the question with an intonation that the written form doesn’t quite communicate. Superficially, it is an expression of innocent surprise but, simmering just underneath, it hides genuine confusion.
It is a very important question. The ‘why’ of doing something has a direct impact on the movement towards the final result. This blog is my response: it will be a kind of Chinese-language travelogue. Not only will I be sharing with you the journey of ‘why’ but also, and maybe more importantly, the ‘how’ of learning Chinese. It will be a continuous movement from one destination to another, and, as I travel, a record of growing through and in the language. This will be my journey – already, in just a short period, it has been an arduous climb, but also an amazing one. This first article will concentrate on what pushed me into my journey of learning Chinese.
I arrived in Mexico City on 29 February 2020, with a plan to return to Havana, Cuba, four weeks later. Then the COVID 19 pandemic knocked the world sideways, and turned it upside down.
My flight to Cuba was cancelled as the country closed itself off to international travel. I made the decision to stay in Mexico in the hope that Cuba would open up by early June, since I had a flight booked then from Havana to London. That flight, too, was cancelled.
I chose not to rush back to the UK, since Covid-19 was ravaging its population even more than Mexico’s (though, sadly, Mexico has overtaken the UK). Having made that decision, I now had plenty of time to focus on learning Chinese; I would actually begin this new journey, and stop pretending to climb the mountain.
I had already been trying to learn Mandarin for six months, spending 30 minutes a day using an audio method: listen, relax and learn. I hadn’t made any progress. None. The possibility of speaking Chinese at all seemed so distant, perhaps beyond reach. I had become deeply disheartened.
Being an English language teacher for 26 years didn’t seem to have helped me much. Or that I spoke four languages. Chinese was so different, so much more difficult than those languages that I already knew.
Chinese is considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. But also perspective is very important here. I am someone who is at the initial stages of learning a new language that is very different from Latin-based scripts (English, Italian and Spanish) or Sanskrit-based scripts (Bengali and Hindi). So this perspective may change. It may turn out to be true: Chinese is hard. Or it may not be true: Chinese is easy. What is more certain is that every serious journey has its ups and downs. At the moment, it is like moving through thick fog – you can’t see very far ahead.
As a teacher, I have come to understand how not to learn; I have comprehended that learning is something personal, even intimate. And it is in this intimacy that the power, and the beauty, of learning lies. It makes you into the world, it extends you, enlarges you. It should never diminish you – though education frequently does.
I realised that what I lacked was time. So I constructed it, ‘brick by brick’, to build up an arena in which to learn. There is some drama inherent to this process because it is ‘ongoing’ and there is a continual risk of it collapsing: one day you wake up late and you lose the whole session you planned, and those ‘bricks’ of time crumble to dust. You feel like a little part of you inside has been washed away by the waves forever.
My greatest motivation in learning Chinese is my desire to communicate with people. They also provide the best tool for helping you to learn.
I like people – talking with them, understanding them and, most of all, discovering their beauty. I also love books – the sound of their pages, the learning that they proffer, the worlds that they conjure up. And the internet embraces the wildest treasures. But nothing compares to the shape and softness of the human soul, and how it can enlarge and deepen who you are.
Language is deeply human, but frequently we seem to forget this. We learn with others and through others: they help us become more than we already are. Language shouldn’t be approached as something dry and technical (grammar and lists of words) but something vital and engaging – something human.
I found three incredible people in China – language exchange partners – to help me learn. I managed to find them quickly – one of the many benefits of internet. They are patient, serious and funny. Their English is intermediate and my Mandarin is, effectively, zero. Fortunately, we have connected (which is not always the case), and we have organised a regular routine that continues to this day.
I have since added learning tools and materials (apps, podcasts, films and books, for example) to the ‘foundation’ of people, and I now have a decent infrastructure for my learning. Once it was in place, the real work could start. Of course, I still have to push myself along, maintaining a weekly rhythm. I am making progress.
In this journey, this climb up the mountain in the fog, something unexpected has happened: I have fallen in love with the Chinese script. My original plan was to learn it once I had some conversational Mandarin, which I reckoned would take at least a year. To my surprise, I found Chinese characters much more compelling and easier to learn than I had anticipated. This has made the whole process more interesting, inspiring, and even, now, truly exciting.
As with any serious and meaningful journey, you need to have a plan, to be ready to adapt it and, more than anything else, to be always moving forward, constantly climbing. Oh – and to expect the unexpected. This is the drama of learning a new language – the reason why I am learning Mandarin: making a journey into the unknown, and, maybe, a new world.
I hope you enjoyed the article.
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