My journey learning Mandarin Chinese has been a few years in the making. Before coming to Taiwan, I studied Mandarin Chinese for two semesters in college and for seven months at a university in Chengdu, China. My main purpose in Taiwan is teaching English to elementary school students, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to improve my Chinese language skills while here. My experiences in learning Chinese have helped open a lot of doors for me in learning about the local culture, and has been a very rewarding experience thus far! However, this doesn’t mean that learning Chinese has been without its difficulties!
There is a unique set of problems that comes with learning Mandarin in Taiwan. First, standard Mandarin is the Chinese spoken in Beijing, China. While Taiwanese Mandarin has the same grammar, vocabulary, and tone system (there are five tones in Chinese that affect how you say different words!), it differs from standard Mandarin in accent and sometimes in pronunciation. Certain vocabulary is different, too. For example, in Taiwan, the word for “speak” or “say” is jiang3 (the “3” indicates the word is said in the third tone). Standard Mandarin also has the word “jiang3,” but it is not commonly used. In Beijing, people use “shuo1.” Beijing people would understand the meaning if you used their version of “say,” but you might sound a little odd. The differences between standard Mandarin and Taiwanese Mandarin are similar to the differences between American English and the English spoken in England—while you can probably understand the phrase, “I like crisps,” I bet it sounds a little stranger to you than “I like potato chips!”
In Beijing or in Taiwan, Mandarin is a very difficult language to learn for English speakers. In addition to pronunciation, tones are often huge stumbling blocks for Chinese language learners. Tones make all the difference in Chinese—if you say “dumpling” in Chinese incorrectly, you end up saying “to sleep!” The phrases wo3 yao4 (I want) shui4 jiao4 (I want to sleep) and wo3 yao34 shui3 jiao3 (I want dumplings) are very easy to mix up, and I’ve done it more than once! Sometimes when speaking Chinese to a Taiwanese local, I will get a funny look. It is usually only later that I realize I used the incorrect tone, and said something totally ridiculous, such as telling a waitress in a restaurant that I want to sleep! Thankfully, Taiwanese people have been very patient with me, and will gently correct me when I use the wrong tones. This is very helpful!
The helpfulness and generosity I have experienced in Taiwan in terms of language learning is something I do not take for granted. I can’t help but think of the difference between Taiwan and the United States towards treatment of immigrants! In the U.S., people tend to be very impatient with immigrants, and get frustrated if they don’t speak English at a near-native level. While there are many exceptions, and many of my Chinese and Taiwanese friends who have studied abroad have nothing but nice things to say about Americans and the U.S. as a whole, I have often heard the same story about how intimidating it is to go to the U.S. with less than perfect English. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be for me if Taiwanese people were so strict about my Chinese language level, so I make sure to be grateful every day I experience this kindness! As a language learner, I know how important it is to feel confident in my progress and in using my language skills with native speakers. If we all just had a little more patience—and made sure to encourage and support English learners when we come into contact with them—I know this will make coming to America a more positive experience for immigrants, and can make a big difference in impressions of America abroad!
Learning Chinese for me has been a doorway into understanding another culture. Knowing Chinese has allowed me to form deep friendships with local people that I think would be difficult if I only knew English. In Taiwan, I’m able to order most anything I want off a menu in local restaurants, so I’m not stuck pointing at pictures. Knowing Chinese also allows me to ask questions about Taiwanese culture, while allowing local people to answer these questions in their own language in their own terms. This has given me great insight into Taiwanese society, and has allowed me to see a more complex and diverse picture of Taiwan that I would not be able to see if I were only able to use English. I am so grateful for these intimate local connections, and cannot stress enough how much of a difference it has made in my experience here in Taiwan!
I know I have been very lucky when it comes to learning a new language. I have been able to study abroad multiple times, and as a result, my language skills have improved a lot. While learning a new language definitely requires hard work, the most important quality students need to have is a desire to learn. Learning a language on your own is difficult, but there are many resources online and in your local library you can use to begin your language learning journey. For me, newspaper articles, podcasts, and bilingual books are critical tools for language learning when I am not in a Mandarin-speaking country.
I am currently a part-time Chinese language student at a local university, in addition to teaching full-time. Every week, I meet with a retired school teacher to take Taiwanese culture classes, which are conducted completely in Chinese. I also have two language partners who I meet with twice a week, and who teach me more casual Chinese than what I can learn in books. I have had many struggles throughout my language learning process, and it is very tiring sometimes to work and study as much as I do. However, I know what a gift it is to be able to speak another language. I have come to learn that if the passion is there, I can make it happen. Sometimes I don’t know how exactly I have managed to work and study and get the most out of my experiences here. What I do know is that I love the Chinese language and culture, and the rest seems to take care of itself!