In our eighth installment of our learner interviews, we’re happy to feature Nancy Zhang. In her own words-
I am a rising senior at Vassar College pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chinese and French. I am currently interning in Washington, D.C. for the China Society and its partner organization, the Global Young Leaders Academy. We are working on projects to promote cultural exchange between Chinese and American students through touring opportunities and youth summits.
She was kind enough to offer some great stories, advice, and insight on studying Chinese. Enjoy!
Do you have a certain philosophy for how you approach learning Chinese?
Mandarin Chinese can seem like a daunting language, but I think learning it is not necessarily as hard as people make it out to be. As long as one is genuinely motivated, open-minded, and willing to put in the effort to see results, learning Chinese is definitely doable.
What mistakes do you see other language learners make? What should people NOT do when studying Chinese?
I see a lot of people thinking of what they want to say in English and then translating it to Chinese in their heads before saying it out loud. That is probably the worst way to learn Chinese. In order to learn Chinese, one must think in Chinese. I know that is difficult to do for a beginner student, but it will really help if you force yourself to think in Chinese. Thinking in English and then translating it in your head is so hard to do correctly because English and Chinese grammar are so different from one another. You know you’re really into it once you start dreaming in Chinese.
Funny stories from your experience? Embarrassing language mistakes, misunderstandings, etc.
YES. One day in class when I was an intermediate student, we had this exercise where we had to describe our personalities and share with the class. I wanted to say that I am open-minded, so I said: “我很开放.” Immediately, my Chinese professor was like “No, no, no!” and shaking her head at me. I was so embarrassed to find out that I had basically told my teacher and the whole class that I was promiscuous! Instead, I should have said “我的态度很开放.”
That instance really helped me appreciate the nuances of the Chinese language, and any language for that matter. It takes time to learn all the nuances and subtleties, it’s definitely not something you can grasp overnight, but I think it’s important because it gives life to a language; it’s not just rote memorization and you don’t just throw up grammar patterns and vocabulary. You learn why this word might technically mean this, but actually connotes something else.
How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?
You have to know when to work hard, but also when to relax. Studying all the time and forgoing sleep is certainly not going to make your Chinese better. I have found that when you’re in a good mood and not too stressed, generally every aspect of your life improves, including your studies. Don’t try to do it all in one day, take the time to recharge your batteries. While I was studying abroad in China, I would take breaks from studying to go visit a nearby park or just take a walk along the streets. Being in a Chinese setting gave me extra motivation and reassured me that I was working towards my goals.
Since you’ve studied in both countries, what is the BIGGEST difference between studying in the US and China? Does a learner really need to spend time in China to improve?
Language immersion is key! The best programs are the ones that enforce a strict language pledge, such as ACC. ACC is so strict to the point that if you are caught violating the pledge more than twice, you will get expelled and sent back to America! You have to actively try to only speak Chinese, even though it’s so easy and so tempting to speak English. Also, having a host family is very helpful. You are forced to speak only Chinese, and it’s great practice for improvisational speaking.
Do you have one last tip for something that our readers can do TODAY to improve their Chinese?
Make a Chinese friend and go to a bar for drinks (if you’re in China, it doesn’t really matter what age you are). The alcohol will loosen you up a bit and you won’t feel so stressed about saying everything correctly and using the right grammar pattern. In this case, the lack of inhibitions will do you good and let your conversational Chinese flow more naturally.
Thanks to Nancy for sharing her insights! If you’d like to be featured as a featured language learner, email me at email@example.com.