Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: expats asia
Wednesday, 09 April 2014 00:00

Learning Chinese Language the "Chinese Way"

A French young man tells the story of his immersion into Chinese language.

My name is Paul Girard and I am 18 years old. Although I was born in France, I have spent my entire life in China. Back in October 1996, I arrived in Shanghai; I was 9 months old at the time. After attending a French kindergarten for a few years, it was time for me to go to primary school. I was six at that time when my parents decided to enroll me in a Chinese local primary school. I stayed in that primary school for five years, before I went to a larger middle school, where I stayed for three more years. Finally, when my family and I moved to Beijing, four years ago, I left the Chinese schooling system to join a school based on the English education, Yew Chung International School.

Over the years I have worked hard to reach the level of Chinese I have now, but I didn't do it alone. I received a lot of help and support from many people that really motivated me to work and make progress. I have categorised the help and support I received into three main categories: my parents, my teachers, and the Shanghai local education system. They have, each in separate ways, helped me become fluent in Chinese.

I wasn't the only one who struggled when I first started attending my local primary, my mom also paid a significant price by being my tutor every evening, helping with my homework and making me work harder and harder. My mother already had learned Chinese when we arrived in China and I was still a baby. And when I started school, she accompanied me by learning it once again.

My whole first year in primary was spent trying to catch up with all the other students. My mum would spend at least two hours and a half every evening behind my back, forcing me to practice my writing and reading, again and again. There is no better memory than hand-memory; every time I learned a new character or word, my mum would make me copy it several times until I knew how to write it. As for the text we learned during class, my mom would sit me down and have me read them out loud at least three times. Lastly, my mother also gave me a lot of dictations to help with my memory. To sum it up, when the teacher said read one time, my mum would understand "read three times", if the teacher wrote on my diary copy this word ten times, mom would see "copy this word thirty times".

Was I cooperative? Absolutely not, I was six and had no idea how important all this hard work was. First of all, I refused to do any work if she wasn't in the room, which forced her to constantly be there behind me. Secondly, I hated re-reading texts again and again, so I developed a few methods to read them faster. For example, I once read a whole text skipping one character out of two. Another time I would skip every other line. Although my mom would sometimes notice my fraud and I was doomed to restart. And lastly, my mother and I would get into huge arguments on whether or not to redo this dictation for the fifth time of the evening. Looking back at my first few years in primary, they are filled with a mixture of anger and tears and disputes, but also with the content feeling of hard work. It may have been hard, but I am certain that they were worth it, effective and I will never regret them.

I believe that during the first few years of my primary schooling, my mum became a Shanghainese tiger mum. All the other student's parents were very demanding of their kids and put a lot of pressure on them, the class's competition was quite high. In a way, this also forced my mom to put more pressure on me, which helped me make bigger progress.

Overall, I think that without the my mom's continuous hard work of pushing me to work and do more, I would never have been able to survive more than a few month in my first year of Chinese school, even less speak fluently. She was the one who really forged the bases of learning a new language in me.

In eight years of Chinese schools, I have been taught Mandarin by three teachers, Mrs Zhou taught me from y2 to y4, Mr Shen taught me from y5 to y6 and Mr Wu taught me from y7 to y9. While Mr Shen and Mr Wu have been critical teachers in my learning experience, Mrs Zhou wasn't as helpful as them. But lets go back to my previous years at that local primary. I had picked up a few words and sentences at home with our Chinese Ayi and could already participate in basic discussions. But having all my classes, teachers and new friends talk to me in Chinese; that was really different. Let me tell you a small story to show you my Chinese level at the time. During the first class, Mrs Zhou, who was our homeroom teacher decided to play a little vocabulary game. When it was my turn, I was terrified, I had absolutely no idea what to say, my vocabulary wasn't very large, I repeated what the previous student said, but Mrs. Zhou insisted I find a new word. My head fell lower between my shoulders and I looked at the teacher blankly. After what seemed an eternity, Mrs. Zhou sighed and passed my turn. Looking back at that event, I don't think that she understood just how much I was lost in this new Chinese environment. To be fair I was the first French boy in that primary school, and she might have lacked experience. When you have a whole class of kids who already know how to speak Chinese and one who can barely remember ten words, it must be hard to adapt.

But over a few months with me, Mrs. Zhou started to understand that I had more difficulties than the others. She then asked me to stay after school for "Buke" (补课, remedial class). "Buke" was once per week, where I would stay after school with other classmates and a supervising teacher to go over topics I didn't understand. It was a time that allowed me to spend more time than others on texts with a teacher and to copy characters again and again.

Unfortunately for me, Mrs. Zhou, while being supportive and a nice teacher, never thought that I would ever be a fluent Mandarin speaker. She never believed that I, a little French boy, could achieve something this big of a task. And as she didn't completely believe in me, it also had an impact on me, as I didn't put all my efforts in learning Chinese, since I had the excuse of being French. I remember once when I got quite a good mark in Chinese class, the teacher complimented me in front of the class, saying, "I did very good for a foreigner." Saying this not only implied that, as a non-native speaker, I could only do SO well, but it also separated me from all the other students. Students always need some competition with others in order to be motivated to succeed. By separating me from all the other students, it was saying that I couldn't compete with them.

When I got to y5, Mr. Shen, my new mandarin teacher, adopted a new method. After a short time teaching me, he understood why I wasn't doing so well: I wasn't pushing myself to do my best. So he took me apart and said: Paul, you are no different from a Chinese kid, you can do as well as anyone, and if you were to do the right effort, you could speak and write Chinese like any other Chinese. This changed everything; I wasn't a little foreigner struggling in a Chinese school anymore, I was now just a little Chinese boy learning Mandarin. The awakening from Mr. Shen helped me believe in myself, I was now aware that I could do as well as anyone there; it was just a question of working harder. And once again, it was Mr. Shen who helped me "work harder".

Instead of asking me to stay after school for "Buke" (remedial class), he and I would go to his house every Tuesday evening, and he would spend an hour and half of his time to tutor me. I always had problems with reading texts and answering questions from the text. Mr. Shen taught me how to break down the text, the sentences, looking for the appropriate answers. There was also this time where we spent the evening reading football match articles in the newspaper so he could teach me how to write about football matches in my writing. Lastly, I had some trouble remembering complex characters and would frequently make some silly mistakes. He suggested that I remember complicated words by memorizing all the small radicals they were made out of and making a small combo. And to this day every time I write the character德 I murmur:"十四一心" for the right part.

He would also surprised me by preparing noodles for me once in a while when it was getting late. Seeing that he was so dedicated and caring to me only made me want to work harder and more effectively. One of the reasons I am standing here today is because of Mr. Shen. He was the first teacher who believed in me, and never saw the fact that I was non-native as an issue.

By the time I went to middle school, I considered myself completely Chinese, or more specifically Shanghainese, which is indeed different!

In middle school, Mr. Wu was my Mandarin teacher. He was a very patient old man and I liked him since the first day. Although he was quite amused to see a blond headed boy sitting amongst his new students on the first day of school, he didn't make any special remarks or observations and simply started his lesson. Middle school is when students start to study poems and ancient texts. For me, mandarin class quickly became hell every time we would start studying ancient texts. While others would read these texts and understand relatively well, I couldn't figure out what was going on, if it wasn't for the little image on the side of the text, I wouldn't even know what the story was about. Naturally, the remedial classes came back. For three years I stayed after school every Wednesday with a few other students and Mr. Wu for extra classes. During that time we would mainly redo dictations we did during class and spend more time understanding ancient texts.

Once again, just like Mr. Shen did a few years before, Mr. Wu always regarded me as a Chinese student, I would receive no extra compliments if I achieved I got a good grade in an assignment and no less discontent row if I failed at something. In a way, receiving any kind of special treatment for being a foreigner would have infuriated me! Once, my math teacher complimented me in class, saying, "Paul is making significant progress in math. Don't forget that Paul is French and Chinese isn't his first language, and yet he has done well." I couldn't help but feel offended in my pride. I didn't want to be a do well in a subject as a French boy; I wanted to be doing well in a subject as a Chinese boy. I wasn't looking for any extra privileges. I already considered myself Chinese and anyone else who didn't would seriously make me angry, for I felt like what I had achieved was not being recognized.

In the end, the teachers who really helped me become fluent in Chinese were those who saw me as nothing more than a Chinese kid.

I would also like to talk about how the very unique Chinese educational system has helped learned Chinese fluently. I have noticed that the Chinese educational system is based almost entirely on memorizing. Whether it is visually, orally or manually, memorizing is part of learning Chinese.

During my eight years in Chinese schools, there hasn't been one night where I wasn't writing words repeatedly, reciting a text or simply reading it several times. One of the most common homework was copying words or passages from the text into a notebook. I think that there is no way of escaping this; Chinese simply cannot be learned without one using his memory. Starting in primary school, we had to memorize small sections of the text we learned. Later in middle school, we would learn a poem every two weeks and, of course, recite it as well. Lastly, at least once a week, there would be dictations on either poems or just words. A competitive element was added to the dictations, as the ones the most mistakes had to sacrifice their break times copying all their mistakes.

But memorizing isn't just an initial step; this is a continuous process when speaking Chinese. With all the thousand of characters one has to memorize, frequent practice is needed. Once, when I was in y3 we took an extended holiday in summer for three months. When I finally came back to school, I did an initial test to look at my level. I remember very well how embarrassing it was when I got a pitiful 4 out of 100. I even forgot how to write the basic character "本".

Even now, coming back from summer vacations in France, I spend quite some time in the dictionary looking up words.

I have already talked about a lot of things that helped me learn Chinese fluently: memorizing, being considered as "Chinese" by teachers, hard work at home, and yet it isn't enough. In the journey to learning Chinese fluently, the last step is stepping into the streets. By this I mean that to learn Chinese, one should also go out in the city and talk with the Chinese population. Allow me to expand on this point: teachers generally have excellent grammar and pronunciation, they have little or no accent when they talk and they certainly don't use Chinese slang in class. But we cannot deny that a language isn't complete without the charm of all its different accents and the mystery of all its slang, especially the Chinese language, whose accent can change every fifty-kilometer.

A very important step in my learning process towards fluency was going out in the city and simply talking with people, the shop assistant, the taxi driver, and the apartment building's guard. By talking with different people I started paying attention to many details such as different accents, different adverbs, different possible ways to phrase a sentence. I paid attention to how words I learned in class are used by people on a daily basis. This has helped me a lot in the way I speak and communicate with others. When I first arrived in Beijing, my friends even picked up that I had a Shanghai accent.

My journey towards fluency, if I may say, has been emotional and hard, but rewarding. The key points were memorizing, being treated like a Chinese student, hard work at home and frequent practice outside.


Photo by B.V.

You can find more testimonies and resources for learning Chinese in the eRenlai Focus "The Joy and Pain of Learning Chinese".

Friday, 08 March 2013 13:19

A visitor's glimpse into life in Taiwan

Maddy King, a Pacific Studies student from ANU learning Chinese in Taipei gives her opinion on a variety of topics related to her stay, such as what she has learned from it, how experiencing Taiwan has shaped her view of the Pacific, and what she misses most about home.

Friday, 27 September 2013 11:53

Learning Chinese the Traditional Way

In this video we talk to different students of Chinese about their experiences learning it, what the hardest aspect of it is, and the aides and help they have found along the way.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013 16:52

Finding your path within the unexpected

In this two-part interview, Barnabe Hounguevou tells us the story of how he gradually decided to join the Jesuits, how was assigned to Taiwan by the society, and what he likes most about the island.


Friday, 03 May 2013 13:29

Focus Response: Father Jacques Duraud, SJ on 'My God?'

Father Jacques Duraud made this reflection on his own faith in response to the eRenlai focus on faith and god in April this year. How do you conceive of faith and god, or even of a world without belief? Feel free to share with us!

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 28 May 2013 17:18

The Taiwanese Experience: Adjusting to life on the other side of the world

In this video we talk to Roberto Villasante, a Spanish Christian living in Taiwan and learning Chinese, about his insights into Taiwanese culture, how it differs from the West, and what he misses most about home.

Sunday, 01 December 2013 19:15

In Search of Utopia

As observed in the mass media and our own personal experience, the Earth's habitat is facing an unprecedented crisis. We clearly realize that the problems and disasters caused by global warming cannot be avoided by any country: one infectious disease after another quickly spreads across national borders, acid rain floats over the seas, even China's sandstorms affect Taiwan. When humankind causes an imbalance in the natural order created by other species, the retribution always ends up coming back and affecting humankind. Never in human history has humankind realised, the way we do today, just how inextricably connected all life on this planet is, forming one big symbiotic entity.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013 13:33

An Interview with Liz Hingley

Liz Hingley is a British photographer who holds a first class BA Honours in Photography from Brighton University. Her work has been recognized with many international awards, including the Prix Virginia in 2012. She is currently living in Shanghai and working on her new project in the city. On an interview with her over Skype, we discuss her experiences in Shanghai. 

Thursday, 31 October 2013 13:50

Water in Classical Chinese Literature

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and one of the longest rivers in the world. The Yellow River is the second biggest river in Asia and the sixth biggest in the world. Both are the most important rivers in the history, culture and economy of China.

Ever since the early history of China, the water of the Yangzi was used for sanitation, irrigation and industry. The vastness of the river meant it was often used to mark borders and was an important consideration in war tactics.

The Yellow river is seen as the cradle of Chinese civilization. The most prosperous civilizations in the history of China were mostly situated along this river. Therefore, it is not surprising that images of water are apparent in ancient Chinese culture and particularly in Chinese poetry.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013 14:47

In the eye of the Storm: Musings on the Danshui


The stream of the Danshui river was bringing me a peaceful melody, waves were biting the shore softly, but, stream inside the stream, slightly blurring the mirror of the water, I could hear a confusing tumult, news from the world struggling in the distance to spill a shot of truth at me:

"When the soldier was being interrogated, all 16 surveillance cameras stopped working. This is absolutely normal. It happens all the time in the army, the cameras are old. This is a banal accident"

Wednesday, 02 October 2013 09:24

5 different Chinese input methods

Here we have a short guide to five different Chinese input methods, including pinyin, zhuyin, cangjie, sucheng and boshiamy, all of which can help your Chinese in different ways, some can improve your tones and some are based on the shape of the different characters. We apologize for the bad video quality - hopefully we can improve it soon.

Monday, 30 September 2013 13:00

Battle of the Languages: Arabic vs. Chinese

The Arabic language has been my principle subject of study, and means of employment, for the past eight years. Recently I came to Taiwan to have a go at Chinese. Four months on and I can say that Chinese is inordinately easier than Arabic! Why? Perhaps some of has to do with improvements in my own language learning method, but I think it is mainly differences in the languages themselves, and in the approach each culture has to teaching its own language.

The principal difficulty with learning Arabic is the disparity between what we learnt in the classroom and what we would hear on the street. In class we learnt what was called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a formal language used for books, newspapers, on the news, but rarely for speaking. This meant that though we might be able to write at great length about American foreign policy in class, we could not make ourselves understood when asking for a cup of tea in the cafeteria. To further complicate the problem, the spoken language (aamiyya) varies widely from country to country, city to city, and even sometimes street to street. So even if we were taught to ask for a cup of tea, "I want" can be "aawiz", "biddii", "ureedu", "widdi", "nibbi" and many more variants depending on what region our teacher was from. So in some ways I can understand why aamiyya was considered off limits in the classroom.

Indeed, after five years of Arabic study, and three years working as a translator, I still regularly met people who I could not understand a single word of what they were saying. Here, it is a relief that whether I am in Taipei or Tainan people's accents -to my ear- are more or less the same, and unless one is speaking Taiwanese, I have an equally good chance of understanding either of them.

Another difference is the reading. Arabic, with 28 phonetic characters, compared to the thousands of Chinese characters each with a pronunciation that cannot always be inferred from reading, and sharing only 400 different sounds between them, should be easier, right? The problem is that in standard written Arabic, vowels are not expressed and in Arabic more than in other languages, vowels are very important. This basically means that every unfamiliar word I come I still end up guessing at the pronunciation (meaning aside!), and in Arabic there are a lot of words! It is embarrassing that after all this time I still cannot really read a newspaper or a novel without the help of a dictionary. At least in Chinese, once you have learnt the meaning of a character, and its sound, you can be sure it is a friend for life.

However, the biggest difference for me in how easy it is to learn a language is how well this language is taught, and Arabic for the best part was taught pretty appallingly. Think 1970s textbooks about conferences in East Germany and visits to the Middle East by President Bush (Sr.), long dictations, reading aloud, all the things that it has been agreed are not beneficial to language acquisition. The first words we learnt in our Arabic class, as I recall, were "Foreign Minister", "Summit" and "communiqué". By contrast my Chinese class –in a small, newly-opened language school- is fun, fast-paced and the emphasis is placed squarely on being able to speak Chinese and not to read and write it. Also, because there is a smaller gulf between written and spoken language –當然 for example, although used colloquially, can also be found in newspapers and books. In Arabic, similar expressions would usually be used only in oral communication, and confined to a small geographical area, so would certainly not be found in teaching materials- it is much easier to learn common oral language and to feel like I am fitting in- in linguistic terms!

Living in the Middle East and trying to get by in Arabic required me to become incredibly stubborn, mendacious and sometimes downright rude just to be able to speak Arabic and not English in my day to day life. One time in Yemen we pretended to be Kazakhs for a week. In contrast, trying out the Chinese I have learned so far –while shopping, at work, at the many regular language exchange events held in Taipei-I have received nothing but encouragement, and nothing but Chinese! I have found that people are generally patient, and if it is necessary to resort to English, people do so reluctantly. However, my flat-mate, who is fluent in Chinese, repeatedly complains that he finds the opposite, so perhaps it is just a question of perspective, and beginner's enthusiasm!

One sure way in which Chinese has been much more instantly rewarding is the advance of technology there has been since I was studying Arabic. There are now plenty of new ways to acquire a new language, all of which Chinese has embraced. For one thing, smart phones have been a revelation for me. Gone are the days of piles and piles of tatty paper flashcards scattered around the house and stuffed in my pockets. Downloadable dictionaries like Pleco also have the facility to create and test flashcards. I am using the AV Chinese textbook series and I can even download flashcard packs which correspond to the chapters so that every time we have a test, all it takes is an hour or two of scrolling through the flashcards- when I am walking, a spare few minutes at work, before I go to sleep- and that's vocabulary learning sorted. Social apps like LINE also are really good for keeping in touch with the new friends I've made here and a great way of trying out what I've learnt.

I do in fact like Arabic. I have had some amazing experiences, met unforgettable people, and discovered a treasure of literature and poetry. Yes, it is hard, but it was taught using the wrong methods. The way to learn a language today-or perhaps ever- is not to do a university degree in it! Advances in technology, ease of communication and travel, mean that universities often seem outdated compared to the many more ways to learn a language there now are.

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