Learning Chinese

This past month I spent every day attempting to learn Chinese. The last time I began to learn a new language, I was four years old. My parents signed me up for French Immersion and I cannot remember what it was like to learn a language from scratch. Over the past month, even though I have not found it particularly difficult to remember new words every day in Chinese, for some reason I have found it extremely exhausting to think, read and write in a completely new language.

All students at Quest are required to complete a level 2 language credit. While the most popular options are French and Spanish, I chose to learn Chinese because I figured it is an extremely useful language to know and will become increasingly so. Chinese is now the most widely spoken language in the world and is by far the most widely spoken native language.

Only ten people signed up to take Chinese 1, which I discovered is actually an ideal class size for learning a language. Because I practice wushu (Chinese martial arts) and have travelled to China a couple of times, I went into the class already knowing some words and phrases, but the majority of my classmates knew not a single word of Chinese. It was probably because of my minor prior knowledge of Chinese that I found the first few days of the class somewhat easy. However, after learning to pronounce vowels, consonants and the different tones, the pace picked up and it quickly became a challenge to keep all the multiple words with different characters but the exact same pronunciation straight. We began by learning Pinyin (the Chinese Romanization system), but soon moved on to reading and writing entirely in Chinese characters (in Mandarin, called hanzi). Part of what makes the language so difficult to learn, at least compared to English, is that every time you learn a new word, you have to learn a new character. There is no being able to hear a word and know how to spell it, or read a character and know how to pronounce it.

My Chinese name

In addition to our 3-hour class, each morning before class we attend a 45-minute drill session to practice speaking. Our homework usually consists of character writing (and remembering), reviewing new vocabulary, a bit of reading, as well as written questions/exercises in our textbook workbook. Our tutor, Fei Shi is great at making the class extremely fun and interactive. In order to practice speaking in class, we read dialogues from the textbook either as a class or individually, but Fei Shi has us perform skits, participate in friendly ‘competitions’, and every day we have to get out of our seats and ‘mingle’ with each other to practice a newly learned set of phrases.

Our field trip to the Sun Yat Sen Gardens in Vancouver's Chinatown
Our field trip to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Gardens in Vancouver’s Chinatown

I must admit that, before this month, I was somewhat skeptical about learning a language on the block program over such a short period of time. I can confirm now though that although exhausting and slightly overwhelming at times, it is the closest thing to being able to immerse oneself in the language. And even though I am wishing I could have a longer block break from Chinese before moving on to Chinese 2 next month, I know it would be much harder to go back to it in a year’s time. Right now I still go to bed every night visualizing the characters and repeating Chinese phrases in my head. By the end of Chinese 2 we will know about 800 characters – according to Fei Shi, almost half way to being able to read and understand a newspaper. How quickly I will forget all the Chinese I have learnt is another question. However, in order to fully learn the language, my plan is to go on exchange in my fourth year to one of Quest’s partner universities in a Chinese speaking country.

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