Reflection on language – Mandarin

A few weeks ago I was sitting with my fellow Swiss exchange student in the Mandarin class and didn’t understand enough to be able to follow the class.

The teacher spoke too quickly, using words I didn’t know yet, to explain characters I had never seen before. I couldn’t follow the course, and looked at my friend, hoping to get some help from his side. However, he too was completely puzzled. The expression “Wenn einem alles Chinesisch vorkommt” came to my mind, so I shared that with him, and we had a good laugh!

Whenever I would tell people in Switzerland that I was going to learn Mandarin, most people reacted by saying something like: “Oh but learning Mandarin is so difficult! Are you sure you can do that?”

At some point I started to get seriously annoyed with these replies. I began to reply: “If you wanted to learn how to drive, would you think about how difficult that was and doubt whether you could do it? Or would you just start learning?”

After spending four months in Taiwan, learning Mandarin daily for about three hours, I wouldn’t deny that learning Mandarin definitely is possible: Currently I am in the process of reaching a level of Mandarin proficiency with which I can ask my way around, ask simple everyday questions, order food, and have very simple conversations. Slowly many characters I encounter in day to day life start making sense, and more and more often I can actually understand what the signs are saying. I have reached a point at which I am really starting to acquire the language.

Since I love learning languages, I can easily motivate myself to spend a lot of time doing so, hence, this part I do not find difficult. For me the most difficult part of foreign language learning is to realise how scared I am of making mistakes; to see how often I unconsciously or even deliberately choose not to practice speaking Mandarin just to avoid misunderstandings. I need a lot of emotional security to speak Mandarin comfortably. Unfortunately, this fact is considerably limiting the time I spend using the target language. I find it very difficult to watch how I have trapped myself in this study mode for the sake of emotional safety. Although I highly enjoy writing Mandarin characters because I love this script and find it much more interesting and appealing than the Roman letters, I don’t really think that this is efficient. According to me this is just a beautiful and enjoyable way to spend my time. For me, language learning always has to happen in a social context.

I highly enjoy writing Mandarin characters

Taipei is famous for being a VERY convenient place to live at. Most people can speak some English and I can get around easily without having to rely on my Mandarin skills. Whenever I encounter difficulties, I can always use google translate to help me overcome them. However, since I really don’t like using Google translate to communicate with others, I have not taken much advantage of this possibility. So, while reflecting on my language usage in Taiwan, I realized that I have accumulated a very one-sided view of Taiwan, the view of the English-speaking locals.

Due to my very limited Mandarin speaking abilities I have strongly restricted my engagement with locals who do not speak English. I feel sad about this, which encourages me to take my foreign language learning to a next level: In order to hear people who are not normally heard by the mainstream media or an Anglo-American dominated society, people need to leave their comfort zones, not be afraid to make mistakes, and learn to actively speak foreign languages and approach native speakers with confidence.

This will allow us to get a clearer idea of the country/ nation/ culture we are living in and go beyond accepting stereotypes and having a one-sided perspective.

As I am planning to emigrate to Asia, knowing Mandarin will be very beneficial for me in the future. While working as teacher in the future, all my knowledge about language learning will be valuable for me. Learning a (very) foreign language definitely makes a teacher more qualified to teach foreign languages. And since I can very well imagine continuing my studies in the field of either language learning or intercultural learning, I think that my personal experiences are going to be very valuable.

As you might have figured out by now, I love languages, language learning and connecting with local people to get to know their culture. That’s why I want to use the last words of this blog post to encourage you to start learning that language you’ve always been curious about. It doesn’t matter how difficult or useless others think this task might be. As long as you believe in yourself, you certainly can improve the world. One effective communication at a time.

Moris Steiner

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