When I first started learning in China 3 years ago, I had no idea what I was getting into. At first, I honestly was against learning a new language, for I just was never good at it. I took Spanish for 3 years in high school and that was a bust. Love the language, hated my teachers. And unfortunately, I didn’t grow up learning my parents’ native tongue, Igbo so the interest to learn any language was never there.
While learning Spanish, the process of learning the language was not fun. All of my Spanish teachers were crazy. My first teacher spent more time dancing bachata music with us and flirting with one of my classmates than teaching the language. The second one was a complete psycho. Definitely, if not one of the worst teachers I have ever had in my entire life. Too many days I went home crying. She would say one thing, do another and always found a way to ridicule people in class which I hugely disliked. My last teacher knew 7 different languages so his classes were always all over the place. I really did enjoy learning Spanish, but my teachers didn’t necessarily set a good tone for wanting me to continue.
But why Chinese? Why did I choose Chinese? There was not much to it. The opportunity presented itself and I took it. Just like that.
But the more I learned Chinese, the more I realized how important and essential it is to learn multiple languages. It helps you understand more about different cultures but also helps you become a better learner. As a native English speaker, people always direct questions to me asking what a certain thing may mean in English. And a lot of times, I am not able to say it from the top of my head, but if people are able to explain it and break down what they are asking, I always find a way to give them the best explanation as possible. It’s also always interesting to meet native English speakers from other countries like South Africa, Australia, The UK and hear what words they use differently in their own respective countries.
To be honest, I have no personal reasons as to why I am studying Chinese other than to learn a new language and gain new experience from it. There’s no personal drive to dig into International Studies or like to find a job speaking Chinese or even specialize in Classical Chinese. I am simply doing for the fun of it.
But is it hard or what?
They say the best way to learn any language is to immerse yourself in a country where it is mainly spoken. But even that is not always enough. You really have to want to learn and practice speaking the language every opportunity you get. From shopping at the grocery store, eating out, one must make every chance they have a learning experience.
While first learning Chinese in China, as I learned, I started picking up words people would use often and my way to practice was to repeat what someone said. If I went to the store and someone said the price to me, I would always repeat back in Chinese to reinforce that in my brain. Something small, yet such a huge difference in advancing my speaking skills.
But while learning, there were always those days of frustration. On some days, I felt like everyone was always in a hurry. While trying to practice using my Chinese, people would get frustrated by the fact that my Chinese was so bad and I would take my jolly good time to respond. Some would simply not give me the chance to say what I wanted to say without brushing me off and ignoring me. Angry and annoyed at times, this helped me
Now in Taiwan, I felt like when I first came here, it felt as if I walked down the dark tunnel and saw the light. Who knew that Chinese here would be so different compared to China. Taiwanese people are very patient when foreigners speak with them in Chinese. They take their time to listen to what you have to say, correct you when you’re wrong and dumb down their sentences if you don’t understand. Seems like a simple concept, but this itself made speaking Chinese here much easier and not as stressful.
For example, I went to the bank one day to exchange notes. I had some Thai Baht and wanted to exchange to New Taiwanese Dollars. Once the guy realized that I could speak Chinese, he started running his mouth rapidly, throwing out words in which I could not understand.
Me to myself: I have no idea what you are saying.
But once he realized I didn’t understand, he slowed it down. And although at that time I didn’t fully make out what he said, I picked out the keywords he mentioned and put two and two together. Then I repeated what he said realizing I used the wrong vocabulary for this situation. From there, he repeated to me what I wanted to and gave me the proper forms to fill out. I was in shock for I almost never got help like this living in China.
Another example, the Asian and the Non-Asian face (me). Too many times I go to a restaurant with an Asian friend who can’t speak a lick of Chinese. Yet, the waiter always direct the questions to my friend and I am always the one respond back in Chinese, but the person asking has yet to acknowledge that I can speak Chinese and my friend cannot. Yet the waiter keeps eye contact with my friend and not me so it feels quite weird at times.
One day, my friend and I visited a noodle shop and I spoke with the waiter in Chinese to have us seated. Someone else came up I guess to help us in English since they thought we could not speak Chinese. But under her breath, she whispered to the other waiter in Chinese “Oh she can speak Chinese, It is ok I don’t need help”. I was indeed shocked. This may not seem like much, but the amount of times I have been in this situation in the past and the waiter decides to disacknowledge me while speaking, is one too many and I could not believe the shift I was seeing here. We carried along the remainder of the meal without any issues.
But I think the biggest hurdle to overcome while learning a new language is building the confidence to openly speak it to others. I would not call myself shy, but I will say that I do get shy at times when speaking Chinese with others around. I know they will be listening and judging all the small mistakes I make and that bothers me, a lot. Living in China studying Chinese at school, I didn’t say much in class. We had a few students who outshined everyone in the class. My teacher just let them do all of the talking. No room for me. If I stood up to say something, I felt like the big laughing stock. People would get annoyed that I was taking too long to speak, and some would just blurt out the answer without giving me the proper time to respond. So I avoided speaking in class. I left most of my time to practice outside of class, which was very little for I was just too shy to say anything a lot of times.
But you know, I had a few classmates who could not speak English so I would practice with them. My favorite judgment-free zone. It generally consisted of myself, a Japanese classmate and two Korean classmates. Between all of us, the only language we had in common together was Chinese. One of my Korean classmates can speak English, and the other Korean classmate could speak Japanese fluently. So if something was lost in translation or too hard to explain in Chinese, it would be said in one of the 4 languages and have it translated over to each other. Our conversations were limited to one another, yet always an interesting and fun time.
Now I think what made it hard to progress was my inability to step so much out of my comfort zone. So many days where I was mad at myself. So many things were going on around me, that I did not fully understand, and this bothered me. So many questions on why certain things happened a certain way.
The big thing when you start to learn a new language, people encourage to get a language partner and practice speaking with natives. Now, this method can be both a good and bad thing. It is great to get more 1 on 1 time to practice speaking with a native who is there to correct you and also be there as a guide. But also, A lot of times it feels just way too forced. There wasn’t always enough balance when speaking to one another. One language may be spoken more over another and the connection with the people was not always clear (which is normal). I didn’t have good luck with this so much in China (or maybe that I didn’t try hard enough)? It’s hard to say. For me it is more than just trying to improve my Chinese., but I also want to build a friendship with people. If I can’t do that, then what’s the point?
Accents are also another challenge. In China, depending on where the person is from, they most likely speak a different dialect and accent which throws someone off like myself who studied in Shanghai. In
Also, I feel in general, based on my experiences living in China, Chinese people are much harder to befriend because I had to break my neck and my back just to get close to them. I had to go out of my way just to hear anything from the few I did befriend. If it wasn’t for me, I don’t think I would have ever heard from many of them. Even when meeting people person, there was almost always this wall they had up. As if they were holding back something. You have to build some type of trust before that wall would break down. If you can’t do that, you will never be perceived as a friend to them. I noticed that there are a lot of things many Westerners talk about casually that you don’t really ask unless you know the person very well. From politics, to even as simple as relationships or your sex life, these are taboo or discussions only done between close friends. But for Chinese people, that means people they would know for years. But even with that, a lot of Chinese people don’t like to talk about these type of things to each other. So don’t try unless you see a window to talk about it and feel confident to do so or you are asked about it first. A lot of this too could be due to cultural differences and not always understanding or reading certain situations clearly, which I came to realize as time went by. But it was still
Whereas Taiwan, people here are super open, much friendlier and want to know all about you. Many don’t seem to care so much in small talk. They get straight down to business. They wanna hear about your view on politics when you tryna get married yikes and sometimes even introduce you to all of their friends and family members. The questions and the things people revealed to me the same day I have met them have been appalling and once again, unexpected.
Also, I have met and befriended way more Taiwanese people since I have moved here. This partially has helped into the transition of being and living in Taiwan.
But it could be also, that as my second time abroad, I know what to do differently and how I can navigate the city and being more openminded and always down try something different.
Beyond all of that, something I noticed when I first came to Taiwan to study Chinese here, is that speaking Chinese here is quite different compared to China. It is like studying English but maybe instead of the US but in the UK. Same language, but slightly different words are used and unless you are a native speaker, you probably would not be able to distinguish between the two. When I first got here, for the first 4 months, I was so confused. With all the stuff I learned in China, and the new things I was learning in Taiwan, It felt like I had to relearn everything all over again. From the characters to the grammar and vocabulary, it was all too much. I would ask people for help sometimes and they would always look at me crazy like what? Did I say it wrong? Maybe they don’t use that word here? I would look up and say to myself ok I definitely said the right word, something isn’t adding up.
A great example of these is the use of the word, subway. In China, they use 地铁 dìtiě but in Taiwan, they say 捷運 jiéyùn. I asked someone where was the 地铁 dìtiě in Taiwan, people look at me crazy.
My second time around learning and being in a Chinese speaking country has been fun. I speak much more in Chinese now and I feel much more confident now when I speak. I definitely still take my time to respond, sometimes even blinking out, but I know with some work and progress over time that I will get better.
I try to speak every day as much as I can with my classmates who can’t speak English, with my friends both foreigners (who know Chinese) my Taiwanese friends, and encounters I have with people from the creepy people in the park to the restaurant workers.
But I think the best way to improve your speaking skills in any language is to find a hobby you love and get together with locals and have fun. For example, I love to bike so I bought a bike and became good friends with the shop owner. Through the shop owner, I met many other people who also love to ride bikes and from there have joined with them on their weekly rides.
In the end, I just want to see how much I can learn from this year hoping to continue practicing as I move along with this time of my life. Maybe I will stay longer and study more Chinese? Maybe I will travel and try to improve my spoken skills by chatting with others? Who knows! The possibilities are endless.