Language

Some things I’ve been thinking about lately—

Learning Mandarin is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. Sure, I’ve progressed a lot; last spring I didn’t know more than a few words in Chinese, and now I can have actual (albeit very slow) conversations. I can order food, give directions, introduce myself and explain what I’m doing in China. But I’m definitely not as confident of a speaker as I hoped I’d be three months into living here. Everyone around me is willing to help: local friends, coworkers, foreigners who already speak it, right down to my taxi driver home from the airport last weekend, who found out I was learning Chinese and guided me in a careful discussion about living in Beijing. But sometimes this help can be overwhelming when it’s coming from all sides. I’m not sure what I need, and I definitely don’t know how to figure that out.

I’ve had myself convinced since age 12, when I started learning French, that I’m bad at languages. This was the main thing that kept me from taking Chinese at Harvard, even though I really wanted to after my first trip to China in 2014. In school, I quickly realized that being a good student does not necessarily translate to being good at learning language. I can memorize vocabulary words and grammar structures, diligently study and score high on my exams, but then when it comes time to actually use the language in real life, I freeze up. I’ll know what to say, I’ll have the words, but in the moment they vanish and I can’t string a sentence together. I’m embarrassed, self-conscious, and sure that I can’t do it. This was my experience with French even after seven years of study, and it’s happening again with Chinese now.

Living long-term in another country and trying to learn the way they speak has made me think a lot about the concept of language. Languages are weird; we have a whole bunch of meanings floating around in the universe, a collection of things every human does and sees and experiences, and at some point different groups of people decided to give names to these meanings and language developed. It’s also weird how the meanings each culture has chosen to assign words to differ from language to language. One of my favorite new Chinese words I’ve learned is 默契 (mòqì). It means something similar to mutual understanding, but stronger than that; it’s when you get another person so well that your minds connect, you work together in perfect unison. The best way I can think to describe it in English is “on the same wavelength,” but even that doesn’t quite capture it. This idea of mind-connection became so important in Chinese culture that it got its own word; in English, however, we cannot directly translate.

But language is so vital, and I realize that more so now than I ever have. Language humanizes people; that faceless crowd around us seems more like actual people when we can hear what they say, know what they’re talking about. What’s more, you can never fully know a person until you can speak to them in their own language. For me, as a fiction writer, the English language is such a critical part of my identity. It’s how I express my thoughts and ideas, communicate my desires, and most importantly, the medium through which I create. Because of this, a person who cannot speak English will not fully understand me—and recently I’ve been feeling the same way about my lack of Chinese.

I also want to feel more real to them. I don’t want to be the unapproachable laowai or the helpless foreign teacher, who can only connect with the small portion of Beijingers that speak fluent English. Last Friday, one of my seventh-grade students came up to me after class to talk about how she felt left out by her classmates during our group projects, and she was clearly frustrated that she didn’t have the words to fully explain in English how she was feeling. When things like this happen, I want to be able to listen to my students talk about their situation in the way that feels most comfortable to them.

So I guess the real point of this long-winded stream of consciousness is, I’m gonna keep trying really hard to learn. I know half of the problem is my mindset—I need to stop telling myself that I’m bad at languages, because it becomes an excuse to keep failing. But if anyone has any Mandarin-learning tips, tricks, or tools that they think are really helpful, I’m all ears.


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