Native Speakers and the Equality Act

When applying for jobs, especially in languages, you often come across the words ‘native speaker’. Whether it’s for a language teacher, a translator, an interpreter or any other general roles that require you to speak another language. Some companies are direct and put in the job description ‘must be a XX native speaker’, which kind of makes sense when it’s a language teaching role, or translating – you should always translate from a foreign language to your native language, rather than vice-versa.

But then again, does it make sense? During secondary school, all the teachers in the language department were British, and that didn’t effect my grades or learning experiences. We had native language assistants who would come in a few days a week for conversation classes, cultural immersion and other things, but the majority of my Spanish was learnt from a British teacher.

So now, as I’m actively seeking a job where I can use my language skills – particularly my Mandarin skills, I do get disheartened and angry when I see employers demand native speakers. In some cases, native Chinese speakers’ native language isn’t even standard Mandarin, their native language is a Chinese dialect, and many dialects in China are incomprehensible to speakers of other dialects. Whereas my Chinese is so 标准 that native speakers are amazed at my almost textbook/newsreader style of correct pronunciation.

I know if I was invited for an interview, I could probably impress the employer with my Mandarin skills, but I’m often either dissuaded from making an application because they ask for a native speaker, or am rejected at the first stage (because I’m not a native speaker).

It seems some employers are aware of this possible breach of the Equality Act, so they sometimes include a line that says something like you must have terrifically great Chinese language skills, and have good English skills too.  This to me shouts ‘we want a native Chinese speaker but are too afraid to state it so directly’.

So, are employers breaking the Equality Act by requesting native speakers? I have studied Mandarin for over 5 years, including a year and a half studying at Chinese universities. I have passed the HSK Level 6 exam (HSK is the international standardised test for non-native Mandarin speakers). Level 6 is the highest, and the description says ‘…[HSK Level 6 holder’s] language application ability is close to that of a native speaker’s’. I often sit here thinking to myself, what more do I need to do to apply the skills I’ve spent so much time on acquiring in a suitable job? I have a university degree, an international qualification, firsthand experience of living in China and I am so passionate.

The UK Government is currently pushing for more people to apply to be language teachers, but from my experience, continuing languages at higher education has not reaped me the rewards I believed it would have so far. If the UK wants to encourage language learning, there should be opportunities for linguists to flourish in jobs that are challenging and rewarding, not restrictions imposed on us because we were born in Britain.


Keeping it up

You study abroad, you learn a language and you promise to yourself and all the friends you met that you will keep the language up when you get home. You look up when the local language exchanges are and start thinking who you know in your city that speaks Spanish/Chinese/French etc…but in reality

It’s REALLY HARD to keep up a language when you’re not surrounded by it 24 hours a day.

When I left China I sent lots of Chinese books and magazines home, I subscribed to lots of Wechat accounts that regularly post in Chinese and said to myself that I would maintain my Chinese blog, to keep up my essay writing. Have I?

Not really.

Keeping up a language is probably harder than learning a language in the first place…even though you know the language, can get by and communicate with people in that language, when you leave that country, it’s hard to even have the same conversations.

For example a common conversation in China would be when the Didi driver called to ask where I was. This meant I got good at giving directions, explaining which road to turn down and learning the names of roads, supermarkets and schools to guide the driver and tell him where I was (even though I would always be at the spot I selected on the map and he has the map on his phone in front of him).

Switch back to living in the UK, and if I go to a language exchange, directions will probably never come up in conversation, and I’ll never say 你到底在哪儿? (where exactly are you?) in the same way again. So that vocabulary will gradually disappear and get pushed to the back of my mind.

I have read some wechat articles, and have posted one new blog post since coming back, but it’s not enough and I really feel I should be investing more time in my language skills, both Spanish AND Chinese.

How do you maintain your level of language when you’re not living in that language environment?

Misheard lyrics (China)

Chinese is a tonal language, but in songs, it’s incredibly hard to incorporate the tones. For example one pinyin word like ‘wo’ pronounced in a different tone can mean me, nest, hold, crouch or snail depending on the tone and the character – 窝 and 蜗 are both the first tone, but one means nest, the other means snail. Therefore, this can lead to a lot of misheard lyrics, especially for us language learners.

Here are some of my misheard lyrics, I won’t tell you how long it took me to find out their real meanings:

你是我心内的一首歌 – Selina/ 王力宏
Pinyin: haoxiang wen ni
I heard: 好想吻你; I really want to kiss you
Actual lyrics:好想问你; I really want to ask you

The next line of this song is 对我到底有没有动心 (if your feelings about me have changed at all), so looking at it in that way, it’s quite obvious that it’s a question.

送你一首吉祥的歌 – 乌兰图雅
Pinyin: lailailai heipengyoumen
I heard: 来来来,黑朋友们; come here, black friends!
Actual lyrics: 来来来,嘿朋友们; come here, hey friends!

The ‘hey’ in this song is a Chinglish word, they used the English word ‘hey’, and the Chinese word for black is also hei. It sounds pretty similar. Other lyrics in the song also say ‘it doesn’t matter where you come from, we’re all friends’, so my interpretation 真有道理!

我的蒙古马 – 乌兰图雅
Pinyin: wo de menggu ma
I heard: 我的蒙古man; my Mongolian man
Actual lyrics: 我的蒙古马; my Mongolian horse

Wulantuya is my current favourite artist, so it’s only likely she’s on this list. She usually sings about the grasslands and she has some songs about a guy she likes, so I thought she was revealing that she liked a Mongolian man, and added the English word ‘man’ in, just because it’s cool to mix languages in songs. But I should have listened more carefully, actually, the first sound you hear when you play this song is a horse’s whinny, and yeah, the video is full of horses.

时间都去哪儿了?- 王铮亮
Pinyin: yibeizi
I heard: 一杯子 (a cup)、亿倍次 (a million times)、一被子 (a quilt)
Actual lyrics: 一辈子; a lifetime

This song is about time passing fast and his parent’s relationship, but 一辈子 is a word I hear in a lot of Chinese songs. I first thought it meant a cup, like sharing a glass of wine or a nice drink together. The previous lyrics are 生儿养女: bearing and bringing up children, so maybe a million times would be suitable, meaning that his parents would do it all over again and again. Then I thought, as I’d heard yibeizi in plenty of love songs, it meant a quilt, like moving in with someone and sharing a quilt with them, cos that’s romantic right? All of those times I was wrong, and it was infact 一辈子,the Chinese word for ‘a lifetime’.

What songs have you misheard in Chinese or any other language? Did you make any of the same mistakes as I did?

Let me look that up

I’ve been studying languages for a long time (over 20 years in fact, because I’m still learning my native language English) so I’m pretty used to using dictionaries. I’ve had lots of foreign language dictionaries in the past and still do, from school learners dictionaries, to picture dictionaries, pocket dictionaries and native language dictionaries. So I always have a lot of choices when I meet a new word.

As now I’m focusing on Chinese language, I usually turn to Pleco when I don’t know a word. It’s a very useful app, where if you don’t know how to type the Chinese character, you can draw it and the app will recognise it. Pleco is a very useful tool for all Mandarin learners, and it has some pretty good translations of Chinese idioms too.

Lately, my vocabulary book has gone into overdrive and the words are colour-coded according to which text book they came from: comprehensive, listening, oral, reading and writing.

A few of my teachers have seen me looking up vocabulary on Pleco, and have told me that now I’m at an advanced level, I should be looking up unknown vocabulary in Chinese, not in English because the translations aren’t always right and there are some subtle differences with some words: for example, in English referee and judge are two different words, but in Chinese, 裁判 can be used to describe both of these. It’s also true that some things just don’t have a handy translation, try telling me what 辛苦你了 translates as!

Baidu dictionary app
Baidu dictionary app

This is not the first time this has happened. In our final year of university, in our Spanish translation classes, we were not allowed to use Spanish-English dictionaries, and instead were all made to download the RAE dictionary (the Spanish equivalent of the Oxford dictionary). We all reluctantly did this, but secretly would go home and check Wordreference when completing our homework.

Our teachers are right, looking up a word in an English- foreign language dictionary is a bit lazy. We just look at the first or second word and take it as it is, without question, but when we look up a word in a native language dictionary, it gives us a better understanding of the word and using our brain to figure out the meaning is better than just remembering what it seems like in our own language.

There are some difficulties in looking up words in a native language dictionary: synonyms. Imagine you don’t know the word ‘enormous’, you look it up and the definition says ‘huge’, but you realise you don’t know what ‘huge’ means either. You turn to , find huge only to find that the definition is ‘enormous’ – what do you do then? This is a problem I’ve found when looking things up in my 现代汉语词典. I’m trying though, and as I’m learning over 250 new words each week (yes I’m keeping track this semester), as my vocabulary expands, I’ll be able to use the Chinese – Chinese dictionary better than I am doing now.

What do you think about looking up unknown words? Do you prefer to use your own language to understand, or do you use a native speaker’s dictionary?

Who put the 松 in 马拉松?

Chinese is a pretty ancient language, with some characters* still resembling the original drawings that people made thousands of years ago. But often, new inventions or words are invented, that weren’t in any previous Chinese dictionaries. Some of these words are Anglicisms – words that sound like the English words, but have been spelt out in Chinese characters. Here are a few to get you warmed up, let’s see if you can guess them (answers at the bottom)

  • 沙发 shafa
  • 可口可乐 kekoukele
  • 比萨 bisa
  • 伦敦 lundun

Another one is 马拉松, the Chinese word for marathon. As you can see, there are three characters, and each one has it’s own meaning:

  1. 马 ma
  2. 拉 la  and
  3. 松 song

So when you put them together, they sound like marathon – malasong. Do you hear it? So let’s look closer at the characters and their meanings:

  1. 马 means horse, which I think is fair, considering the distance in a marathon
  2. 拉 means pull, tug, transport, moving, play (string instruments) etc, which is also ok, considering you have to move yourself a long way to the finish line and it involves energy
  3. 松 however, is different. it means pine tree (which is fair if there are pine trees on the route), but it also means loose, relaxed, slack, untied which are not words I would associate with a marathon.

I just completed my first half marathon yesterday, it was in China, so I thought about this during the race. Who put the 松 in 马拉松? because there were points (especially after my dreaded 17km stage) were my muscles were definitely not loose and relaxed, I wasn’t relaxed, and I didn’t want my shoelaces to be untied either!

Do you have any idea where this came from? Do you think it’s funny?

Here’s a video to the Running Man tv show, the lyrics to the chorus are: brothers, let’s run together GO GO GO GO, run, run, run. People played it aloud on their phones during the race, it definitely got in my head and is kinda catchy.

*by characters, I mean the Chinese symbols they use as letters

Answers to the test: 沙发 shafa (sofa),可口可乐 kekoukele (coke), 比萨 bisa (pizza), 伦敦 lundun (London)

Why I Chose To Study Chinese and Why I Study Chinese

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.

No sense make.

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.

Isn’t it pleasant to have friends from afar?