When I tell people that I study Spanish and Chinese, the most common reaction is
That’s a strange combination!
despite the fact that in my year there are sixteen of us studying the same program and I’m sure there are many more in the other universities in the UK. In this post I want to explain a bit more about the reasons I chose to study Mandarin and the reasons why I study it now. I think they’re a little different.
My interest in China started in 2007, as the Language Prefect for my school I was made aware of a unique opportunity to go to China for an exchange program. Coventry’s sister city is Jinan and the council wanted to send a group of students there for diplomatic purposes I guess. I went to a few meetings with other people my age and we discussed how we would fundraise the trip and also what tourist attractions we would take the incoming group of students to in our local area. I remember being accepted to the scheme and was very excited, but unfortunately in May of the following year, Sichuan was to suffer a terrible earthquake. Naturally the Chinese side wanted to spend their extra funds on earthquake victims rather than a group of schoolkids from Coventry (or at least that’s what they told us). The trip never went ahead but after seeing some of the pictures of this mega city in China, I was always curious about what would have happened if I had gone.
In sixth form (2008-10), my A-level subjects were Maths, Chemistry, Biology and Spanish, as my original plan was to become a doctor (this probably came from watching a lot of Casualty and Holby City). I went to a hospital shadowing course for a few days and realised that medicine was definitely not for me…so I decided that since Spanish was the subject I most enjoyed, I would study Spanish or Hispanic Studies. After being advised to study a joint honours languages degree by students at open days it was time to choose my third language.
I didn’t see it as such a big decision at the time, I thought it would just be something extra to my degree and I don’t think I realised that I would have to dedicate more hours to this new language than Spanish. I never wanted to study two European languages (well I wanted to study both French and Spanish at GCSE but my school would not allow me; four years later they would allow my sister to study three languages at GCSE). There was a feeling in my mind that many British students studied a combination of Spanish, French and German and I wanted to do something different to everybody else. In secondary school I always had a feeling I was different to many of my classmates and I was right.
After looking at what universities offered, I saw that my only two viable language choices were Mandarin or Arabic. I’ve never liked the cold, so Russian was not looking favourable. More universities offered a joint language degree in Spanish and Mandarin so I thought that I would be more likely to get an offer if I applied to five places rather than four. I could also mention in my personal statement my plans to go to China, as I like Chinese food isn’t a good enough reason to want to study a new language for four years. I got all five conditional offers for Spanish and Chinese courses and chose Nottingham for reasons which I won’t discuss today.
Skip forward almost five years later and I’ve just started my final year of study. My passion for studying Chinese has only grown over my years at university. At times I loathe it, my homework for this week is to find eight examples of how to use the particle 了, each of the eight examples has to have a different usage. Despite it being the same character and one of the simplest to write and say, it has so many uses and depending on where you put it in a sentence can change the whole meaning.
But most of the time I really enjoy learning Chinese. The satisfaction of being able to skim read short pieces of news in Mandarin on my phone and being able to watch and understand Chinese TV programs is just extraordinary. There are about twenty of us studying Mandarin with another language so we all know each other and it’s a nice feeling to go to class with your friends. Yet on the Spanish side, there must be over 150 students and I still see new names and faces in my seminars. When they find out I study Chinese they say,
Wow, so can you like have a conversation in Chinese?
Well yes, I can have more than a conversation after three years of studying it. I can bargain for my shopping, make phone calls, sing karaoke and survive in China. I can also understand this Grumpy Cat Meme.
Although I can survive in China and pass language exams, I still feel it is not enough. It’s still difficult.
I want to continue studying and mastering this language as it still fascinates me. I’m extremely interested in Chinese slang and idioms. Our teacher comes out with some amazing one liners based on Chinese thoughts and experience, for example:
Hitting children is like pruning trees. You have to cut them back to make them grow more.
I would just love to be able to understand more of the logic behind the way Chinese people speak and how their everyday language has developed into modern day Mandarin. Although the world is changing at an incredibly fast rate, China is determined to stick to it’s long history through the use of characters and famous words from Confucius himself.