What My Chinese Language Class Taught Me

Chinese is one of those damningly difficult languages. At Harvard (and I’m sure elsewhere), it is a doubly damningly difficult language. Taking a “native speaker” Chinese language class with overly eager/perfectionist students just like you!, damns you thrice.

Taking Chinese has realized that sometimes, you just need to keep chipping away with a spoon to wear down a mountain. You need persistence, patience, and self-awareness to succeed.

1) Persistence

Many Harvard students are used to naturally and quickly learning new things, but then they stumble across the beast that is the Chinese language. Faced with 40-odd characters a lesson to learn, many realize that you can’t effortlessly get an A in this class.

Chinese requires writing. While some are more visual or auditory learners, every learner of the Chinese language must become a tactile learner. I personally, need to spend about an hour each night, writing the new characters over and over, and over and over, and over! again.

And it’s not quite enough just to repeat the hand motions mindlessly, it requires a sort of concentrated effort to come up with a fleeting mnemonic justifying the appearance or sound of a new character: this character for guest incorporates the character that rhymes with it but wears a hat as well!

It’s always disappointing when after an extended break (e.g. spring break), you return to class and realize you’ve forgotten the word that means “to hope,” that you learned in elementary Chinese a year and a half ago.

2) Patience

After 2 years of study at Harvard, I’m bamboozled to think I’m considered an “advanced” student. My mind cannot possibly comprehend how many more characters and character combinations I need to learn before I can discuss issues about nuclear war, poetry, taxes and the death penalty.

When the language system requires 3 fold study:

  • sound component
  • written component
  • meaning

But the 3 components do not automatically compliment each other (the way the sound and the written component do in English), you need to automatically increase the effort required to learn a single word by 50%.

The thing that most freshmen need to realize is that taking a Chinese class is like getting engaged. It requires devotion to get to the wedding alter and even more effort to build a harmonious marriage. And, when you are forced to admit cold feet and drop Chinese, you always feel a bit like you’ve cheated on both yourself and the language.

Whereas taking a single year of Spanish in college can make you somewhat proficient in at least a vacation to Spain, taking a single year of Chinese will provide you with the ability to regurgitate commonly used phrases. Add to this the strangely evanescent nature of your Chinese language ability, and within a year after you’ve stopped taking Chinese, you’re going to remember scant few things about it.

Thus, recognize that the Chinese language ain’t a one night stand or a fling or a 3-month hook up. It is a long term commitment.

3) Self-Awareness

I had a friend who didn’t have any prior experience and took Chinese. He was a notorious procrastinator and ended up not consistently studying the characters. He ended up saving half-a-semester’s worth of studying for the night before his midterm and subsequently did rather poorly.

Tying in with the “engagement” motif, you need to realize what type of student you are and what type of student you can reasonably commit yourself to being.

Chinese is the language where I feel that I meet the limitations of the brute force capable by my mind. Cramming for biology is one thing, cramming for Chinese is another thing indeed. There is like a saturation point for the mind to deal with new Chinese words at any one time, beyond which, you’re only destroying your recently learned knowledge.

Harvard kids are REALLY good at procrastinating, pulling things out of their ass, at the last minute. But Chinese is one of those things where you will fall just like Neo first fell in the Matrix if you overestimate your own mental prowess.

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