Learning Chinese In Taiwan

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Learning Chinese in Taiwan – My Experience

By Justin O White

When I first arrived in Taiwan to teach English, I had already taken several courses in university on Mandarin Chinese. I had done well in those courses and enjoyed them very much. I thought that maybe I would be able to begin conversing immediately with Chinese speakers and improve my Chinese in the process. I was excited.

However, as soon as I became immersed in the overwhelming environment of Taiwan I became afraid to speak. Seeing all of the signs written in Chinese, constantly overhearing long streams of spoken Chinese that were incomprehensible to me, and seeing the effortless fluency of some foreigners who had been there for a while, I began to feel very differently about my Chinese speaking ability. Things felt very different outside of the classroom.

And so when I went to Starbucks, or ordered at a restaurant I spoke only English except for a polite “xie xie” or “thank you” to waiters and waitresses, and an occasional polite “Ni Hao”. I occasionally wondered whether my university courses in Mandarin Chinese had been a waste.

What really happened to me was what happens every day to Chinese language learners. I became afraid and overwhelmed at the foreignness of the language, and did not stop to consider the fact that with a little more practice and a little more courage things would begin to make sense. Being paralyzed with fear, I was limited in my ability to interact with Chinese people.

Something happened a few weeks later. I had spent a lot of time in public, and the sound of spoken Chinese was becoming more ordinary to me. Despite the fact that I had not been practicing my Chinese, and I had not consulted my vocabulary flashcards, I began to notice in the long streams of unbroken Chinese, some words that I recognized from my courses in university. At first, I heard only one word. “Dianhua” – telephone. After that, I began hearing other words. Sometimes, I would hear a couple of words in one sentence.

So I got out my flashcards, and looked into an online program for learning Chinese called Rocket Chinese. More and more words began to stand out to me. I started studying Chinese characters and even began to be able to read small blocks of text in the advertisements I would see outside my window. It might seem ridiculous, but I felt an intense sense of victory. I could not carry on a conversation, and most Chinese was still indecipherable to me, but I had a feeling. I developed the conviction that with consistent practice and a careful ear, that the Chinese language would come into focus for me.

When I really began speaking in Chinese to Chinese people I met, I began to learn Chinese fast and the smiles that I received in return were a fantastic reward for the work that I had done in learning the language. It was a great feeling to order food from a restaurant in Chinese, or to make a comment about the weather to the lady who works at the bank.

I still have not mastered Chinese. I would say that I have a moderate degree of fluency. My reading is still especially poor. However, I feel very strongly that the reputation Chinese has as a difficult language is undeserved, and that it comes into focus for anyone who is willing to listen to it and attempts to speak it. I hope that others will not be paralyzed by fear as I was, but embrace opportunities to speak. I hope as well that many others will feel the same intense sense of small victory that I felt. Chinese is a fascinating language and a rewarding one to learn, and absolutely anyone can learn it.

Justin White lives in Jhubei Taiwan, and frantically works at learning Chinese.

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