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Learning Chinese? Go Native

February, 2011
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My experience in China is defined by attempting to become a more culturally conscious and globally aware citizen, but when I first arrived in Shanghai in 2007 I didn’t speak a word of Chinese. Actually, let’s be fair; I could count to ten (slowly) and say hello. But as helpful as those limited phrases were, it was essential that I learned the language as quickly as possible. I sought out an international school that boasted one of the top Chinese programs in Shanghai; at YCIS, I was thrown headfirst into a rigorous Mandarin curriculum and told to swim.

learning-chinese_gabi-sOvercoming the language barrier in China was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I currently speak English and Chinese and am learning Portuguese. English is my first language, and the more I study English grammar and literature the more I am able to understand the construction of language. I am able to draw some comparisons between English and Chinese, allowing me to better understand and use Chinese grammar. However, despite studying both Portuguese and Spanish in the past, Chinese was an unparalleled challenge in terms of language. The Latin and Germanic languages are much simpler to learn and understand; perhaps it was the lack of an alphabet, perhaps it was the addition of tonal inflections, or perhaps it was the sheer volume of characters, but I found Chinese particularly difficult in the first few months. 

With any language, though, there is a moment of synthesis. When I started to recognize radicals, strokes, and shapes, the whole process was simplified significantly. That’s not to say it was easy, or that I was suddenly fluent. In fact, recognition was only the first step of my learning.

Every single one of my Chinese teachers so far has told me the same thing: I needed to stop translating. That is, I was thinking in English and then translating to find the Chinese words. This was significantly impairing my fluency and grammar, and is an issue that most foreign-language students are familiar with. The key was to begin thinking in Chinese, and my teachers encouraged this with relentless repetition for which I am now grateful. Now, I rarely have to translate words into English before I speak, and this makes my conversation flow much more easily.

I also took the initiative to hire a tutor who worked with me for a few months until I was able to master the basics. This helped me with my writing as well, as my tutor helped me to learn the HSK vocabulary. This list is intended to prepare students to take a Chinese proficiency test much like the TOEFL exam for English. I am now considered to be proficient in writing Chinese, a skill that has also helped me to memorize more characters for use in speech.

I was also told to immerse myself in the local culture, which was exactly what I did. I began to converse with local people, as well as listening to more Chinese radio to become more accustomed to the language. I also began to look for opportunities in the local community that would interest me.

Heart-to-Heart is an organization that benefits children who are also heart-surgery patients. When I found it, I was blown away. I want to be a doctor in the future, so working in a hospital seemed like volunteerism that was perfect for me. I also got a chance to work with children, which I have always enjoyed. But working at Heart-to-Heart had an added bonus: I was able to really practice my Chinese. By conversing with the children at Heart-to-Heart I got to apply my newfound vocabulary and language skills.

My Chinese neighbors and friends have been the best teachers in terms of practical, every-day language. I think that many students would learn faster this way as well because it is a much more engaging way of studying the language.

Learning a new language is never easy, but I have learned that it can be fun!


By Gabriella Rader

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