I am currently six weeks through university and the majority of what I have been doing is learning Latin intensively. I have one hour every single day at 9am sharp (apart from Thursdays, thank god for Thursdays!) with a class of about ten others. Studying Latin intensively makes me reflect on my time studying Mandarin intensively. Latin is so different from Mandarin and so I thought I’d talk about my experience back in China.
If you didn’t already know, I spent two of the four months I was in China studying Mandarin intensively. And when I say intensively, I mean intensively. I had four hours a day one-to-one for a total of eight weeks (side note: I didn’t do these eight weeks consecutively, I studied Mandarin in my first month in China and my last month). Now, you must be thinking, “woooow, that’s so much Mandarin, you must be so good!” and technically, yes, I am quite good but I think there are a number of factors to consider when studying the language.
I landed in China in February earlier this year, having not picked up a Mandarin textbook or spoken any Chinese since completing my GCSE back in 2013. Two and a half years had passed. But I was excited.
The school I had chosen, KCE, was based in Shijiazhuang, Hebei which is an hour outside of Beijing. It still has the standard PuTongHua 普通话 accent but it was far enough out to not attract many tourists. This was amazing as it meant that I was forced to go out and put into practice the Mandarin I would be studying; practically nobody spoke English.
For the first couple of weeks I got back into Mandarin and followed the textbooks we were using: I learnt the vocabulary and I made notes on the grammatical structures that GCSE failed to teach me. I was making progress, though I was still very reluctant to speak. The teachers at the school spoke in Mandarin most of the time and I began to understand more and more of what was being said, yet I only replied in English. They say that you need to wait for the language to just ‘click’, for it to be some kind of lightbulb moment. I don’t know exactly what I was waiting for but it still never came. I could string very simple sentences together and I would say these in class when asked to but it was very rare to hear me speaking Mandarin outside of the classroom.
Towards the end of my first month, I got a bit more confident and attempted to speak in sentences to my host family instead of the phrases and miming actions I had been using previously. I was greeted with smiling and encouragement and I seemed to somehow have got my message across. But this happened only a handful of times; I still didn’t want to speak the language and I don’t know why.
Fast-forward about 12 days and I was back in China after a completely unexpected week in Edinburgh sorting out visa issues (yeah, it’s a long story). Alice and I were in Chengdu this time to begin our volunteering and I found myself more confident speaking Mandarin and I did so almost straightaway when we met our in-country guide from the volunteering company. I used small phrases and basic sentences but it wasn’t much and we mainly spoke in English.
Before we were taken to the school, we had a couple of nights in the city centre for our orientation but what we didn’t realise was that we were left to fend for ourselves in the evenings. There were three of us: me, Alice and an Italian volunteer called Giada. Giada had studied Mandarin and Japanese at university so her Mandarin was pretty good (though she had said her speaking wasn’t brilliant since she had never got the chance to properly practice it with native speakers). It was therefore left to me to order once we had settled on a Chinese restaurant. It was quite daunting but with the aid of Pleco, I managed it – I even somehow remembered ‘翻译不对’ which means ‘the translation is incorrect’ when the waiter showed me something on his phone.
During my two months of volunteering I used the Mandarin that I knew to help in my lessons, particularly when the younger students didn’t understand. I was speaking a lot more than I was back in Shijiazhuang but it still wasn’t a huge amount. It didn’t help that a) Chengdu’s regional dialect, SiChuanHua 四川话, is completely different from PuTongHua (even Chinese citizens living elsewhere in China struggle to understand SiChuanHua!) and b) that I was there to teach English and therefore I mainly spoke in English (not just to the students, but also to the English teachers). But somewhere in those two months ‘it’ had clicked. Perhaps it’s because I was so immersed in the Chinese life and was so accustomed to hearing it and using bits of it everyday.
I’m not sure what exactly it was, but when I returned to the Mandarin school in Shijiazhuang, I was suddenly speaking Mandarin all the time. I was using the language at every opportunity I got and, unlike my previous teacher, my new teacher very, very rarely used English. Plus, I was also only replying in Mandarin (whereas previously I used to reply in English) so these things combined greatly helped with my proficiency. I remember that in my first month, I spoke to Alice’s host sister only in English. I’d get her to say things to me in Chinese but I wouldn’t be able to answer: I was still getting used to learning the language and getting reacquainted with it. In my second month of being at the school, when Alice was away seeing family friends, we decided to meet up. We went to the local dumpling place and guess what? I only spoke Mandarin with her. It wasn’t even because I had decided to make an effort and only use Mandarin; it had started to become so natural. Alice’s host sister, Betty, even commented on this and said that she was surprised I was only speaking in Mandarin because before I only spoke in English. It was at that moment that I realised how far I had come.
I’m still far from being fluent (which is the ultimate goal) but living and immersing myself fully in Chinese life really, really helped. When I got back to England I realised that not hearing Mandarin being spoken all around me and not being constantly surrounded by it had a huge impact… my skills slowly faded. I am still yet to complete the rest of my grammar notes (which I hope to do in the holidays) and I haven’t reviewed any vocabulary as I’ve been focusing on mastering Latin for my degree (one language at a time, Viola, one language at a time).
Essentially, learning Mandarin is tough, especially if you want to learn how to write but it is do-able in an intense environment. If you have the time, the money and the commitment, going on an intensive course (preferably in China), is far more effective than learning Mandarin in England over the course of weeks, months, or even years!
I hope this was interesting for you to read – particularly if you would like to hear about other people’s experiences with learning Mandarin, or with learning a language intensively (or both). If you have any questions about my experience (I know I didn’t go into much depth…) then please do comment below 🙂
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