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|Studying Mandarin Chinese in China : Keith's story|
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As a child, I could speak German. My parents told me that I started uttering German sounds after 2 weeks, in the German kindergarten. After about 3 months, I was speaking well and it wasn't long before I could speak just as well as locals of comparable ages. This successful language learning experience contrasted heavily with my time at school learning French, which, I eventually failed. Though it did teach me that language learning was primarily about self-motivation, immersion and not grammar, grammar and more grammar.
Now I have forgotten much of my German and only being able to speak one language fluently has made me feel intellectually inadequate on the world stage. It's for this reason that I decided to take up another language.
Why I chose Chinese Mandarin
I also thought that, if over 1 billion people can speak Mandarin or Putonghua (the common language) then so could I. To me it just seemed a more practical and useful then Japanese.
The TEFL Method to learning a language
Not only have I been able to teach English with TEFL but the training gave me many insights in how to learn a language, quick and effectively. When I learn I don't concentrate on grammar. Communication, even if it's not standard, is most important. Also, I won't bother with writing Chinese until I can speak it well. This systematic way to learn a language is similar to a child's methodology.
I try to get people to talk to me like a fool, like a child in fact. No wonder children learn languages so fast. Adults talk to them a little slower, use more gestures and often repeat phrases again. Of course this method won't suit some of a very serious disposition but for me I have at times a clownish character, which can sway people to treating me the way I want.
Choosing the location in China and other language learning methods
The College I teach in is in the polluted industrial city of Shijiazhuang and only has one foreign teacher, me! This suits me; as for the 6 months I've been here I've not had to make friends with other English speakers. All my friends are Chinese. At times this has made me feel lonely and homesick. It's not for everyone and it does take discipline but, I have resisted finding European friends as the rewards of learning the Chinese culture and language have more than made up for the lack of good English speakers.
The students are another resource I've made good use of. Most are only too willing to help as usually they get a chance to practice their English. I try to have a one-hour conversation with a student every day. Being in the dominant position I am able to determine the content of the lesson and I have found this sense of being in control of my language learning further increases the speed of learning. I also record the lessons and record new vocabulary onto my MP3 player (Pimsleur style).
As for materials: I started learning using Pimsleur and now use the Rosetta Stone software. Being in China I've also got access to a wealth of cheap language learning material. I've bought many excellent books to learn oral Chinese. Having a vast range of materials means I never get bored. I don't try to memorize each book thoroughly. I find my language learning process has been much quicker when I come across a language point again is another book which triggers my previous memory.
Talking to taxi drivers, shopkeepers and others blissfully ignorant of English have only helped to speed up my communication skills. The one language-learning tool I'm missing is a girlfriend. However, though easy to find my morality has stopped me. Northern China's morality seems similar to Britain's in the 50's. I'm 26 now and in my 'comrade's' eyes I should get married soon. Dating is not usually casual like in the West and should lead to marriage. Considering I will leave this city this year marriage is not something I can even contemplate.
Fuel for my learning has come from the Chinese people who are some of the warmest people I've ever met. It's no exaggeration to say that they have been the greatest motivation for my success in learning Chinese. The compliments are never ending to the extent that I must always keep a reality check on my ego. Indeed, the Chinese like modesty.
Before coming to China I could speak very little Chinese. I had completed half of Pimsleur's Mandarin Chinese level 1. Now, after six months of living in China I can now get around without an interpreter and can have conversations. I'm far from fluent but my learning has been exponential and I hope with hard work that another six months will bring fluency in speech. I've recently met other Westerners here learning Chinese who are impressed at my standard. I'm no cleverer than them. My short-term success has been due to planning my trip to China and learning how to learn a language.
My advice to anyone wanting to learn Chinese is to come to China. Rather than paying for a substandard university course you can have a true immersion experience and get paid for your efforts. If you did want to go to University then fee's (and living costs) here are cheap. For example, you could study Chinese for a year at any Chinese university for around $1500 - $1800
On the other hand, those with homosexual tendencies casting a virgin eye on China might think they were in paradise. It's not uncommon to see two women holding hands or sitting on each other's laps, cuddling each other. Male friend will often place their hands on your thigh and even walk with their arm around your waist/bottom! My boss (a ladies man) even walked past me and slapped my bottom once, as a sign of affection! Believe me these displays of affection still take a little getting used to.
Some bad things about China
The Chinese smoke everywhere (though not women). As a westerner it seems shocking to have someone light up a cigarette next to me in such mundane places as an Internet bar and let the smoke waft into my face without any care.
The Chinese spit on the streets all the time. Actually this doesn't bother me. But, it might others.
The Chinese can't drive. The Chinese government in their bid to increase car ownership have a very relaxed driving test. A taxi driver even let me drive his car once. I agreed then realised while driving I was not wearing my contact lenses. He kept insisting that I overtake vehicles at dangerous corners as a result I nearly hit a pedestrian. I even overcharged myself at the end of the journey.
In general the Chinese are very helpful. If you are carrying things friends will automatically want to help, such is their communal nature. They will help you do all manner of things that you never thought you needed help with before. Sometimes for an independent westerner this can seem intrusive.
Being asked awkward questions
The Chinese will often comment on your looks and will freely say if they think you're fat, beautiful etc. When I ask the Chinese if they think their lovers are beautiful often they may say "no"! Students introducing themselves to me have in the past said such downright honest things such as "I love eating food so I'm fat".
The streets are always full of people playing! Playing Chinese Chess, or outdoor ball games. Not just the young but also the old. You can go to a park at night and it's full of people some ballroom dancing, others dancing to disco music, some playing their instruments in the park other playing sports and of course there's martial arts. The vibe is truly amazing. I explained to a Chinese friend of mine that, parks at night in England could be dangerous places inhabited by just the young. It seemed an alien concept to him.
All in all, the TEFL language learning method is a way to get immersed into a culture and furthermore get paid for your efforts. If you're dedicated and efficient you'll be able to learn your target language quickly. I know that when I do return to Europe I will always have friends in China and so people to practice Chinese with, and a reason to return to this great country.
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