Learning Chinese Language the "Chinese Way"

by on Wednesday, 09 April 2014 Comments

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".

Paul Girard (保爾)

I was born in France but grew up in Shanghai my whole life and attended all local schools throughout my primary and part of my middle school. And now I have been studying at an international school in Beijing for four years.

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