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Studying Chinese: FAQs

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1. Why did you choose Chinese?

Sometimes I think I’m only asked this because my course choice is unexpected for a person of my colour, religion, race, culture, all of that. I’m almost certain I would not have been questioned at all had I been studying medicine, pharmacy, optometry or dentistry, or straight Economics. Depending on who I’m talking to, I usually have to repeat my degree title, because they’re not sure they heard correctly.

My answer really isn’t all that special. I really enjoy languages – and aren’t we always told that we should study something we enjoy? I decided to study Chinese because it was new to me – a language with which I had zero previous experience. The fact that it is also the most commonly spoken language on our planet possibly helped that decision, as well as encouraging me to study Economics alongside it.

2. How was China??

It was great. Indescribably so.

No, but seriously – I still need to come up with the perfect one-liner to answer this EXTREMELY broad question. I know I’ve already ranted about this, and I know it is only asked good-naturedly, but it can get hella annoying.

3. Wow, so are you fluent in Chinese?

This one always gets me. I’ve thought about it a lot but I think I’ve found an answer. The first step was defining ‘fluency’ in my own terms. For a language student, attaining ‘fluency’ at a native level is incredibly difficult, if not near impossible.

After exchanging greetings with my neighbours when in I was in China, they would often ask if I speak Chinese. I would always smile and reply ‘yes, a little’. My answer stayed that way for a long time, even when I was having full conversations in Chinese. It took me a few months to realise what I was doing, and that prompted me to question why I answered as such. It was difficult though – at what level does my Chinese have to be until I can just reply with ‘yes’?

That’s where my definition of fluency comes in. To me, fluency means being able to say pretty much whatever you want to, even if you don’t know all the correct terminology. For example, I may not know how to say ‘unemployment’, but I can express the same thing by saying ‘people without jobs’. Or I may not know how to say ‘fructose’, but I can refer to it as ‘the sugar in fruit’.

In this way, you can still make yourself understood, even without the same extensive vocabulary possessed by native speakers.

4. Is your course mostly full of Chinese people?

Sorry, but I don’t even understand the logic behind this question. I am studying the Chinese language as a foreigner. How on earth would it a) make sense to put total beginners and native speakers in the same classes?, b) be fair to test them in the same way as learners?, and c) be worthwhile for a native speaker to sit in classes well below their knowledge and ability??

In short, no – my course is not mostly full of Chinese people. It’s full of people, who, just like me had little or no previous knowledge of Mandarin and chose to take it up as a totally new language.

5. Would you want to go back to China?

Without a doubt, YES. I definitely want to go back – for the food, the cost of living, and the opportunities – for work, for travel, for language practice. But there’s a caveat. I don’t want to live there permanently. The absence of family, the lack of a supportive and tight-knit community, …the pollution.

Who knows, though? Times are changing…


About Ibtehaal

I graduated with a degree in Chinese and Economics, which involved spending a year studying Chinese in Beijing. This turned out to be the hardest but most rewarding thing I think I have ever done. I've now returned to China for another year, to study in Shanghai and figure out my next steps.

2 responses »

  1. Oh woops I’m sure I’m guilty of asking ‘How was China?’. I can see why it’s a toughie. How are you supposed to capture several months of experience into a few choice words? You should direct them to your blog 😛

    • Nah it tends to be people I rarely know/see, so that’s sort of a conversation filler when we have nothing else to say to each other. People who I talked to during the year and who read my blog would have no reason to ask me that. So no, you’re not guilty 🙂


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