Recently I have been trying to find new ways to stay motivated while studying Chinese.
Since coming back from Taiwan I’ve made a lot of language gains–my writing skills have transitioned from simple monologues about an “experience I had traveling” to paragraphs forming a coherent essay utilizing formal diction and argumentation, instead of reading simple Idiom Stories, I’ve read–though not without struggling–new articles about the Suicide Rates of Younger Siblings in Chinese. I went from barely following along in my Chinese classes when my teachers elected to only speak in Chinese, to sitting on a panel listening to a bunch of my cohorts and educators from Taiwan asking and answering questions in Mandarin and understanding most of what was said. But, where I’ve made gains, I’ve also had some losses since coming back to the United States: I’m more hesitant to talk in Chinese than I was in Taiwan, more conscious of my mistakes, conscious of how alien and powerless I feel when I can’t say what I want to say how I mean to say it. Unlike in writing, where I can go back and edit ungrammatical sentences, or less fluent phrasing, when I talk, I stumble–and I’m very conscious of it.
Luckily, I’m in the Chinese Flagship program, sponsored by the U.S Government, the goal of which is to give language learners the opportunity to reach “superior” language skills by it’s completion. When I first joined the program back in Spring of 2014, I thought this was a guarantee by the programs completion. Recently, I’ve learned from Flagship Alumni that this is not necessarily true. Even with the Capstone year in Nanjing or Tianjin, there are still students who did not test past advanced level Chinese.
According to my last assessments–I am still in the intermediate mid/high range, slowly but surely climbing the inverted-pyramid-thingy to sneak into the legendary Advanced Zone. 加油！
I’m under a lot of self-inflicted pressure because I want more than anything to test at the superior level. Though getting to the advanced level is a pretty big accomplishment in itself, I joined the Flagship because I wanted to be more than just fluent in Chinese. I wanted to do more than just “get by” with the Language.
I’ve been studying for a really long time. The strides I’ve made since I first started learning Mandarin when I was just a sixteen year old girl in her room watching my first ever Taiwanese TV-Drama: “It Started With a Kiss” [惡作劇之吻] or e zuo ju zhi wen. . .
. . . sixteen year old me couldn’t have imagined that almost eight years later, I’d be running a blog about my experience studying Chinese abroad in Taiwan! When I was sixteen, I remember picking up easy words and phrases back then, like “sorry” [對不起] or [我喜歡你] “I like you” at the crucial love confession climax from watching drama–wondering if I’d ever be able to watch without English subtitles. Now I can watch with Chinese subtitles (hah!), and mostly follow along. And next semester, I’ll be scratching my head trying to figure out basic classical Chinese: [孔子曰，生而知之，上也]. . .WOW.
And although I’ve certainty made strides, I’m 24 years old now–still young, yes–but I don’t learn Chinese in the same way I did when I was sixteen, or eighteen. I find it harder to relate to the love-sick heroines of the romance dramas I used to love, making it hard for me to watch TV-Drama, even just for the sake of learning new words. I can’t remember how to write characters as easily, or commit new sentence patterns to use with ease. I’m trying to articulate big thoughts in big ways, and in between dividing my attention between volunteer tutoring, my new job, and classes for my English major, it’s hard to find time to study Chinese and not make it feel like a chore, or an impossible task as I realize how much I still don’t know even after all these years of studying….
Even though I’ve formally been studying since my senior year of high school, my favorite way to learn new words and phrases was independently, through Chinese songs.
I would sit for hours on YouTube watching music videos, singing along, and committing random characters to memory, if not in meaning, in sound. I started out learning Simplified Characters, but when I transferred to SF State, I switched to Traditional. That transition wasn’t as hard because I was already familiar with Traditional Chinese from watching music videos: Chinese music videos are awesome because they almost always have subtitles!
So I’m trying to rekindle that unfiltered passion…studying because I love to, because I think it’s fun, and not because I want to pass the insane amount of tests I must take a week. And although, yes, I do want to pass my tests…I just don’t want learning to only be about “passing tests”. Instead of chasing praise for correctness, I want to chase unabashed experimentation with the language. It’s what I encourage my own students to do–so why not myself?
For me, this “experimentation” is the only way I’ll ever feel like I own this Language. Like it’s mine. Like it’s part of who I am.
And that’s why my goal for myself, next semester is to create and take advantage of opportunities to speak in Chinese. I will be taking a class over in order to complete an incomplete I received before going to Taiwan. I know we will have weekly oral presentation, and I want to take the opportunity to use these presentation to try and learn how to speak naturally in public. I don’t want my speech to sound like a recital. I want it to sound like it belongs to me. Like I’ve never said these exactly words in this exact way before. But I am able to…
…because I speak Chinese. And the words flow through me.