I’ve mused for weeks now on what I could write about for my last 66hands topic. It’s been an incredible journey; I’ve written over 33 articles, stories and essays on China, totaling a staggering 55,000 words.
For just over two and a half years, I’ve covering anything and everything surrounding contemporary China including conversations with lesbians, China’s booming avocado market, my empathy with tiger mums, an analysis of China’s domestic yoghurt market, boisterous elderly tourists, dating and relationships as well as the mainland perceptions of the social credit rating system, to name just a few.
One factor that has made all this possible is my longstanding grapple with the language – Chinese Mandarin. Without speaking Chinese, I wouldn’t have traveled as far as I did, nor would I have had the conversations I did. When people ask me ‘So how good really is your Chinese?’, I (and probably most linguists) internally sigh.
By now I can (pretty much) do everything I aspired for when I was first introduced to the language 5 years ago, including: joke around with my Chinese colleagues and friends, order taobao and take out, haggle for discounts and belt out the odd KTV-inspired Chinese ballad when (absolutely) necessary.
So, as I sit down to write the last ever post for 66hands, with only a month to go now until I start my MPhil in Education (Research in Second Language Education) at Cambridge University, it seems only apposite that I depict my journey with China’s dominant language – Chinese Mandarin.
I hope that my collection of writings has informed, engaged and enlightened readers on the reality of China from the eyes of natives, and from those who have lived, studied and worked there. As a nation, China is not always the easiest place to live (as tempting as it is, I won’t make a concise list), but for me, it’s been an incredible, vibrant (and ironically open) space for me to launch my career … and it really was all worth it in the end.
About Chinese Mandarin
Chinese Mandarin, alternatively known as 普通话 putonghua, is one of the oldest languages in existence. The earliest written corpus on ancient written Chinese records are the Shang dynasty-era Oracle bone inscriptions 甲骨 jiagu, which archaeologists have traced as far back as 1250 BC.
Today, around one in five people on the planet are native Chinese Mandarin speakers. Within mainland China, 160 dialects and 130 ethnic minority languages officially exist. To patch up China’s linguistic fragmentation between its 1.6 billion people, in 2000 Beijing introduced the Law of Universal Language and Character, stating Mandarin as the official language.
As far as the language itself is concerned, there are 4 different tones to master pronunciation. When starting out, it’s expected to stumble over these, but it’s important to become familiar with them as you progress to reduce the inevitable risk of embarrassing blunders. Whilst the characters initially look confusing, in fact they build upon each other. For example, tree or wood is 木 mu, woods is 林 lin and forest is 森 sen (which also means dark, or gloomy).
Understanding how (& why) you learn
It wasn’t until my A levels that I worked out my most optimal way (for me) to learn languages is through chatting to people, learning song lyrics and taking notes from movies. It’s not conventionally ‘academic’ and leads to the odd grammatical error, but it’s the only way I’ve been able to keep up my languages since graduating alongside working full-time.
Everyone learns differently, whether it’s drilling through a textbook chapter by chapter, taking notes from movies, dating someone who speaks the target language, or spending 15 minutes on Duolingo every day. People pick up certain skills at different rates. Languages are *not* difficult. If someone has worked through their preferred way to learn, and they are motivated, everything falls into place and language learning becomes a habit.
Pinpointing your motivation to learn Chinese, however, is everything. My decision to study Chinese ab initio at university was sporadic. My dad (strongly) suggested it so I seized the opportunity. My motivation to continue developing my language skills has been simply so I can chatter to a more diverse pool of Chinese natives (and to surprise those rude, unsuspecting and nosy locals on the subway that, actually, I know what you’re saying, and my nose isn’t that big, thanks).
Chinese Mandarin over other languages
Something particularly unique to Chinese Mandarin is that scholars begin to see a more creative and pictorial world of language. This is because of the uniqueness of the character writing system. For instance, Chineasy, a project founded by ShaoLan Hsueh is “a ground-breaking method of reading and interpreting Chinese characters for westerners” that breaks characters down into easily recognizable pictures. Once you start seeing how characters are composed, you’ll see them in everything.
Being able to communicate with someone from an entirely different culture to the one in which you were raised is truly amazing. It’s akin to exploring a whole new universe of incredible food, customs, language, mannerisms and perspectives. Many of my Chinese friends were educated in classes of 50+ students, are only children, and were simultaneously raised by both their parents and grandparents. Their childhoods couldn’t have been further from those of my British classmates.
Whether or not the Chinese economy is on the up or down hill (for the sake of an honest article and to provide an unbiased perspective, it’s not looking too great) there are numerous professional opportunities upon grasping Chinese Mandarin. Some of the most lucrative careers I’ve witnessed with Chinese speaking skills: tutoring in first-tier cities, tech startups in Shenzhen, IP law, journalism, research and editing, engineering in Chinese firms, trade into and out of China.
Some resources to get stuck into Chinese Mandarin:
Reading & Writing:
- Chairman’s Bao (for reading resources)
- Pleco (for an instantly accessible dictionary and vocab flashcards)
- HSK Textbooks (for grammar and concise exercises)
Speaking & Listening:
- QQ Music (for Chinese music and lyrics)
- Chinese radio (for attuning your ear)
- iTalki (for finding online language partners)
See the website I’m building MyBambooBridge on more ways to understand China from authentic and interactive sources
And finally, to everyone I met along my 66hands journey, thank you.
My China sister from another mother Lucy (Goose), Dr G. who is soon to get his PhD, the rowdy bunch at Tsinghua: Hannah, Teagan, Aarden, Clement, Tom, Meg, Alex, Canadian Jeffrey, and the even more rowdy French at Tsinghua Benjy (and TianTian), Ronan, Benoit, Romain, Med, my amazing roomie and soon-to-be bride Sydney and the wonderful Louis, my Chinese language teachers at Tsinghua (who had to be cruel to be kind), the Jianbing street food vendors (all of them), Katy and Meredith’s NUT butter, the Beijing taxi drivers who gave me a safe non-judgmental space to perfect my Beijing accent, Steve M my brilliant China mentor, the family I stayed with in rural China over the 2017 CNY, the THU vegetarian society and Jessie, Dennis and his Chinese restaurant providing a sanctuary in my last year at Birmingham, to Oxford for awarding me an offer for your MSc in Chinese (thanks but no thanks), Theresa, HJ and the Chopsticks Club for their guidance, Katy H, the wonderful people I met whilst working in Shanghai: Tina, Rowena and Johan, Howard, Jamie QQ, Kenrick, Lou and her truly incredible China doodles, Alex and Ffin (long live HP sauce), Cameron, Grace, Dan and Ankur from China Unbound, only Vicky at LFO, The Shanghai Dad Club, Gray the swimming pool man, Mr Noodles who thought I was Russian all along, Apple Juice lady, Balint, Noel, some notable students: Cherry, Bonnie, Alonso, Diana, William, Eric, RongRong, Laffay, Yaya, Hannah and Emma (my fav), my housemate Derek (and the others), HK with Max and the serendipity of life, all the Chinese staff at the preschool I worked at for 4 months, the four women who were brave enough to share their story for ‘voices of China’s lesbians’, the YCW global crowd – in Shanghai and beyond, that taxi driver who let me teach (sing) him all the words to Akon, Beef Peace and his dumpling supply throughout the year, my Xiamen big brother, everyone I met in hostels whilst traveling this summer, the team at Week In China for giving me the opportunity to intern remotely with them over the summer, the editors at RADII, Shanghai Family and NuVoices for the features I’ve published, Zhuolun and the team at InVisor for everything that is to come (!), my parents for picking me up and putting me back on my feet after breakups and breakdowns (sometimes literally), grandpa & grandad for their fascination, my siblings for being so weird and wonderful (6 languages between us and counting), and friends (Lucy D, Emma C, Zoey H-N, Phoebe L, Lorna F, Alice R, Faye A, Nishta V, Charlotte S) for their endless support when China got the best of me … and to my best friend Arie who represents all the good in the world – I love you to China, right round the world and back again.