Dreaming in Chinese

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/13 17:43:40

Learning the language has highs and lows for foreign students in Shanghai

Who does not think Chinese is one of the most difficult languages in the world to master? Everybody knows it! So are foreigners studying Putonghua all mental masochists? Why do they choose to spend so much time and effort trying to learn Chinese characters and all the various tones unique to the language? In fact, in addition to the billions of people in the world who speak Chinese, there is a growing demand to learn the language as well as a growing requirement by employers to know the language fluently.

There is a growing demand among foreigners in China to learn Chinese. Photos: CFP

Chinese is currently the most in-demand language in the world.

The central government routinely sends Chinese teachers abroad as volunteers and an ever-rising number of foreign students are coming to China to immerse themselves in the Chinese language and culture.

Apart from pragmatic reasons to learn Chinese, many simply find themselves curious about Putonghua and the way it sounds.

"I really like Chinese language," said Donnie (pictured below) from the US when asked why he studies Chinese.

As the number of mixed-race Chinese-foreign couples and children has also risen in recent years, many spouses are learning Chinese to please their significant others and their in-laws.

"I really need to learn," said Brendon (pictured below) from the US, who recently married a Chinese-American woman.

Among those foreigners brave enough to pick up and move to China for study or for work, some realize too late that learning to speak Putonghua, along with reading and writing Chinese characters, requires the utmost dedication and concentration.

In addition to getting used to new culture, society and environment, students must also interact with Chinese teachers and study partners regardless of their language level.

Such challenges can make the studying process in China feel more like a workout regimen. Only coming through those challenges can they work the studying process out.

For many foreign students, their teachers are also their hosts, spending many a patient class explaining the nuances of living in China on top of their regular course load.

Thus, Chinese-language teachers are often cherished and deeply respected by foreign students.

Jesse (pictured below) from the US said he "got lucky" with his teacher, who is both a mentor and a veritable drill instructor.

"My teacher is so good. He pulls us in. If you take his class for a day, it is hard to leave."

Student of the streets

Many foreigners, however, become frustrated with the Chinese language and/or the local culture and leave the country soon after. But for the more diligent, the hard work tends to pay off, especially for those who practice outside the classroom.

"Basically anything outside the classroom was how I improved my Chinese. The class was just for foundation," said Donnie, who explained that the best Chinese lessons are often taught on bustling local streets, in shops, with a taxi driver or in a restaurant.

"When buying something, now I can annoy the vendors with all my questions. 'What about this one and what about that one?'" Catherine (pictured below) from Russia laughed.

Photos: Global Times

Foreign students utilize other methods to succeed in their dreams of dreaming in Chinese.

Watching local television programming, using Chinese social media (such as Weibo and WeChat), reading Chinese literature and making friends can reinforce what has been studied in class.

Getting a Chinese girlfriend or a boyfriend can also help, according to many foreign students, who refer to such romantic language exchanges as "pillow talk."

Striking up an affair with a Chinese-language partner of the opposite sex or hitting the Shanghai nightlife on weekends to meet attractive, curious local women or men is indeed a popular pastime for foreign students in the city.

"Especially dating four Chinese girls at the same time; it's like four times the practice!" Jesse joked.

You can't say jiji

Besides human interaction, foreign students say they actually find it easier to communicate with locals via WeChat or Weibo.

Such apps provide essential news and information and current trends of Chinese society as well as a platform to correspond in the written language not unlike a virtual classroom.

On such apps, popular expressions and new vernacular are in abundance, thus supplementing traditional words and phrases of the Chinese language with cool, hip lingo.

In this manner, Catherine said she learned how to say "awesome" after reading it on a Chinese friend's WeChat post.

Donnie likewise knows how to say "I am drunk," which is an essential part of the terminology for hanging out with Chinese friends.

In addition to rote memorization, endurance and patience, speaking Chinese also requires dumb luck.

One might be a genius when it comes to memorizing a hundred flashcards every day, but such a skill does not necessarily guarantee that a Chinese-speaking foreigner will be understood by local people.

"The real difficulty is trying to sound good, getting the tones right," Donnie said, explaining that every province has its own dialect and pronunciations, which makes Shanghai, where the population is 50 percent migrant workers, all the more frustrating when it comes to communicating with ordinary people.

Despite the tremendous efforts foreign students put in to speak the language correctly, many attempts dissolve into amusing misunderstandings.

In particular, Chinese homographs (a word that shares the same written form as another word but has a different meaning) have vexed many a foreigner.

"When you want to say animals in a cutesy way, like maomao for kitty or gougou for puppy, but for baby chicken you can't say jiji because that means penis," Brendon laughed.

Tone loco

Tones, being an essential part of a Chinese word's meaning, tend to complicate studies.

"With certain characters you just move the position and then it becomes a different word with different tones," Donnie explained.

"You need to really concentrate on the tones," said Brendon, while Jesse stated that pitch and pronunciation are most troublesome for him.

"It is hard for me to distinguish between 'there' and 'where' (nàli and nali). They sound the same to me."

Catherine and Donnie both admitted to unwittingly saying qù dàbiàn (to go poop) instead of qù dábiàn (to defend a thesis) for a long time before realizing their mistake.

Ironically, their Chinese classmates and teachers were too embarrassed to correct them.

"I don't know how to say 'where are you from?' yet, so I just say 'are you from Shanghai?' If they say no, I say 'are you from Guangzhou?' If they say no again, I just keep saying random cities until they tell me," laughed Jesse.

Learning from one's mistakes has become common practice for anyone studying a foreign language.

Chinese-language students in particular tend to appreciate any chance to practice their abilities, and seem to benefit from the trial and error.

Sound awkward

However, a number of foreigners here have expressed their dissatisfaction that many locals make no effort at all to try to understand those speaking Putonghua.

"If I do not say a word perfectly, they just wave me off saying ting bu dong (I can't understand you)," said Brendon, whose experience was echoed by other interviewees.

Indeed, as foreigners can sound awkward when conversing in Chinese, some locals may try to help them "save face" by cutting the conversation short, which is exactly the opposite of what foreign students are hoping to accomplish.

A blanket refusal by locals to speak with foreigners can damage Sino-international relations as well as decrease foreigners' self-evaluation.

The way foreign students are disregarded leads to slowing their learning progress.

As a result, in a country as insular as China, the few foreigners who are living and studying here thrive on interaction and inclusion.

All generalizations aside, immersing oneself in a vastly different society and culture far away from home and with limited language skills has been described by many foreign students as skating down a mountain for the first time. It is a peculiar combination of excitement, fear, exuberance and adrenaline.

Ultimately, most foreign students the Global Times has successfully withstood their initial difficulties and challenges in acclimating to China, an endurance derived from cultural curiosity and a drive to speak Chinese fluently.

They all agreed that studying in Shanghai has been an experience that inevitably comes with extreme ups and downs but also with big pay-offs.

"In order to succeed, you should never give up trying," said Catherine.

This article was written by Catherine Valley


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