When people find out that I can speak Mandarin, the first thing they usually ask me is why I decided to learn it. Chinese is often considered to be a difficult language for English speakers to learn. Some even call it the most difficult language in the world. While it’s becoming increasingly common for English speakers to learn Chinese, it wasn’t even offered as a language when I was in high school. So while most of my classmates were content learning French, Spanish, or German, I was searching for online Chinese classes that I could take on my own time.
I’ve heard many different reasons for learning Chinese. I think that the most common reason, or maybe just the most logical, is that knowing Chinese is helpful if you’d like to do business with Chinese companies or even in China in the future. I’ve also heard many people say that an interest in China’s long history and culture is what sparked their interest in the Chinese language. This, an interest in a different culture, is similar to why I ended up learning Chinese. However, it wasn’t ancient Chinese culture that attracted me.
It all began in high school, after I became friends with two Taiwanese-Canadian sisters. They introduced me to Taiwanese culture, and I ended up falling in love with Taiwanese dramas, movies, and pop music. I started singing to Fahrenheit (飛輪海) songs, practising Show Lo’s (羅志祥) “Party Boy” dance, and fan-girling over moody Zhi Shu in the drama It Started with a Kiss (惡作劇之吻).
"I Wanted to Understand and Be Able to Sing Along to the Songs that I Loved!"
My love for Taiwanese pop culture is what lead me to start learning Mandarin. I wanted to understand and be able to sing along to the songs that I loved. And although English subtitles were available online for most of the shows and movies I wanted to watch, it just wasn’t the same as actually being able to understand the dialogue. (I was also so hooked that I didn’t want to wait for the subtitles to be completed to be able to watch new episodes!)
When I went to my Taiwanese friends’ house after school, I also often heard their parents speaking to them in Mandarin. I was always curious about what they were saying, and impressed that my friends could speak a different language. Sometimes, when their parents yelled something from the kitchen, I’d worriedly ask my friends whether they were upset. It usually turned out that they were just asking whether we wanted to eat some fruit. I’ll always remember years later, after I started learning Chinese, their mother speaking to me in Chinese for the first time. We were ordering food at Tim Hortons, and she suddenly turned to me and asked “你要飲料嗎？” (Do you want a drink?) While this may seem like a simple question, the fact that she was speaking to me in Chinese, and that I could actually understand, was amazing to me.
As I mentioned, my high school didn’t offer Mandarin Chinese classes, so I had to figure out a way to learn the language on my own at first. I started by self-studying, by watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, and reading books. After trying to self-study for a while, I wanted a more structured way to learn, so I enrolled in an online course, which helped me start to expand my vocabulary a bit more. In university, I finally had the chance to take real, in-person Chinese classes. I really appreciated finally having a teacher to correct my pronunciation and answer my questions. All the while, I continued listening to music and watching shows and movies in Mandarin. These not only kept me motivated to learn the Chinese language, they also helped me improve my listening skills and pick up on how people talk in real-life situations.
While I was learning Chinese, I also had several opportunities to travel to Taiwan. The first time I went, I tagged along on my Taiwanese-Canadian friends’ family trip to Taiwan during summer vacation. At the time, I was still in high school. It was my first time traveling abroad without my parents, and a bit of a culture shock at first, but I ended up having an awesome time. I loved the sights, the food, and even the hot, humid summer weather there. Seeing Chinese being used in real life was also exciting to me, and I felt a sense of achievement every time I could recognize a character on a sign or understand what someone was saying.
"Being Immersed in the Language and Interacting with Native Speakers was even more Beneficial for Me."
A few years later, in the summer of my second year at university, I returned to Taiwan again. This time, I was fortunate enough to have received a Huayu Enrichment Scholarship from the Taiwanese government that allowed me to study in Taiwan for a few months. I chose to attend NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center for three months during the summer. The classes helped me learn a lot, especially in terms of reading and writing, but I think being immersed in the language and interacting with native speakers was even more beneficial for me.
Every day in Taiwan, I found myself forced to learn more of the language and expand my vocabulary in order to complete daily tasks. Whether mailing a letter, opening a bank account, or ordering food, knowing Chinese made things a lot easier. Of course, in Taipei, many people speak some English, but not all. Going to a smaller city might have given me even more learning opportunities, but I still learned a lot in Taipei. I also sought out language exchange events and found language exchange partners, which helped me get more comfortable conversing in the language. Oh, and I also started dating a Taiwanese guy… of course that wasn’t purely for the language learning benefits, but it did help.
The people I met in Taiwan, especially my boyfriend, became an even bigger motivation for me to improve my Chinese. I wanted to be able to communicate and express my thoughts to them as fully as possible. When I had to return to Canada to finish my degree after my summer at NTNU came to an end, I had an even bigger reason to work on my Chinese. I had decided to continue my relationship with my Taiwanese boyfriend via long distance, so the only contact we had was through Skype and messaging. That meant more talking than ever before.
I’m now married to that same guy I met in Taipei while studying Chinese, and we live in Taiwan together now. I speak Chinese at home with him, as well as to many of my friends here, and of course use Chinese in much of my other everyday tasks while living in Taiwan. This helps me to continue learning and improving gradually as I go about my daily life.
Looking back, it’s a mixture of my love for Taiwanese pop culture and the people that have come into my life that led me to learn Chinese. Today, I’m not as interested in pop songs and dramas as I was as a teenager. Instead, it’s the people around me that have become my main motivation to continue learning Chinese. I think learning a language is a lifelong process. This is especially true when it comes to Chinese, with its thousands of characters. I look forward to continuing my language learning journey, and wish you the best on yours!
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