How failing Chinese was the best thing for my language learning

By Bronagh Marley

At the end of my first year of university, I failed Chinese. Twice.  I was told that due to my poor performance in my language modules, I was no longer an eligible candidate for an exchange programme, and thus no longer able to continue as a student of my chosen degree. After much discussion, numerous email threads and few tears, I was permitted to continue with my chosen field of study, but was, most understandably, advised not to continue with my study of Chinese.  Thinking that third time was definitely the charm, and no longer under any illusions of the challenges associated with Mandarin, I re-enrolled the following year and scraped through the rest of my university career with lack lustre Chinese language scores. But hey, I passed! Despite my dedication to the study of Mandarin, I still struggled to find effective methods of retaining information presented in my classes.

The study of Chinese was a point of much trepidation over my four years at university, but were I to do it over, I would enrol in Mandarin without a second thought.

“Just memorise" - An introduction to Language learning

Over my four years of varying degrees of Chinese study I have tried and tested numerous methods, resources and class structures and can say that, though far from an expert, I have been able to find a method that works for me. My first attempt at Chinese was in my first year of university.  The textbook used, Integrated Chinese, taught in no other way than rote learning; a large slab of vocabulary was given followed by a passage that I would come to find out from my Chinese friends were often inaccurate and more Taiwanese than Mandarin.  I was told by my teachers to “just memorise.” A long list of words memorised in a week were just as soon forgotten. Exactly what was required in our mandarin classes was dubious and exam time would, no matter how many hours of study went into preparation, be met with panic and a complete lack of understanding.  My classmates and I would lament the fruitless hours spent writing out a long list of characters, only to open the test paper and realise none of it was relevant.  As a result, Chinese students dropped like flies, going from a class of 125 to a mere 24 by the end of the year.

In my third year of university, I participated in year exchange programme to the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.  Unfortunately, due to complications with subject approval, I was unable to fit Chinese language modules into my schedule, something which in hindsight, I should have been a lot more proactive about pursuing. As I have come to learn when dealing with certain aspects of Chinese administration: persistence is key.  While this year was an excellent introduction to China and fortified my resolve to come back at the end of my degree, having an extra year of language study in China would have made a significant difference in my progress.  This was made even clearer to me a few weeks ago when an old classmate from Ningbo showed me her textbooks, which are in fact the same ones used in my courses at Jiaotong.

Studying in China

Studying Chinese in China - a turning point in my language endeavours?

Having studied Chinese for three semesters at this point, I felt confident in my ability to perform daily tasks easily. I was mistaken. My university’s Chinese course was heavily geared towards reading and writing skills, something which doesn’t prove useful when stuck in a Ningbo bus terminal for three hours while trying to get back to campus, or in a doctor’s surgery when a bad batch of soup dumplings could very well be your demise. It was these moments of incompetence that emphasised the importance of speaking and class participation in language learning.  With this in mind, I enrolled in a Chinese language buddy programme, where local students were paired with exchange students wanting to improve their conversation skills. My buddy, Cucumber (yes, his self adopted English name) seemed utterly terrified at the prospect of speaking Chinese with a foreigner, and thus my first and last meet up was spent speaking broken English as his side long glances at his watch and the door did not prove encouraging to my already shaky Chinese skills. I watched on with a mixture of resentment and interest as my friend from Liverpool, whose previous knowledge of Chinese did not extend beyond her local takeout, caught up to my level within a semester.  This was largely owing to her language buddy, who would invite her out for meals and insist on speaking Chinese at least two hours a week. I now view my exchange year in Ningbo as a year of trial and error, where I formed my appreciation for Chinese culture, and a resolve to continue my study of Mandarin.   

At the end of my degree I chose to undertake a year of intensive Chinese study at Jiaotong University in Shanghai. My goal at the end of the year would be to comfortably pass HSK level 4, something that relies heavily on my ability to recognise vocabulary.  I noticed a marked difference in the teaching style and materials from my first class. All of my teachers used little to no English in class, and introduction of vocabulary was done so in a practical sense, with dialogues and example sentences, rather than rote memorisation at home. By understanding the words in context, I found that my rate of recognising words was much quicker than my study attempts back home. I can now identify that the textbook and teaching methods used during my undergraduate approached advanced topics and vocabulary, when the basics were not yet cemented.  With dedicated listening, speaking and reading classes, vocab and grammar are often touched on three times, and now find myself with a much stronger foundation for continued study. Though the textbooks used (汉语教程- Hànyǔ jiàochéng) are somewhat out-dated, often with mistakes in the English translation, when used by a competent teacher, I have found them to be a useful resource. 

Great Wall of China Walking Down

Studying without study:  the changing face of language learning

I feel the biggest issue facing language faculties in both school and universities is the retention of students, as many become demoralised when their hard work does not produce expected results. It is realistic to assume my competence in mandarin will not lie in my ability to write characters, but in my recognition of them.  As an aural learner, I particularly like online tools such as FluentU and Mandarin Shooter Quest as they provide an audio-visual way to learn new words. I have recently started using fluentU after lamenting to a classmate about my lack of exposure to Chinese outside of the classroom or the back seat of a taxi. While Shanghai is a fantastic city, it is very easy to remain in the “laowai” bubble and get away with very little Chinese. The app provides well subtitles and interactive Chinese videos, where in depth definitions of vocabulary can we clicked on and studied further.  This is a fun way to stay engaged with Chinese popular culture, while improving vocab recognition.

With the date of my first HSK exam fast approaching I have relied heavily on Mandarin Shooter Quest (MSQ), a shooting style game that breaks up the monotony of rote learning, something that has become the bane of my four-year struggle with Chinese.  Players choose from Most Used or HSK world lists then progress through 24 Chinese cities while identifying pinyin, characters, and English words. I feel a tool such as MSQ complements traditional forms of study as time otherwise spent mindlessly scrolling through my newsfeed could be spent practising HSK characters with very little effort. I think that a product that presents an exciting, educative experience to help even the most language challenged individuals (myself included) can improve their rate of character memorisation. Pronunciation can also be improved by turning on the sound function, something that I find particularly beneficial, as I am more likely to remember a word when I hear it.

There are no short cuts

Throughout my Mandarin endeavours, I’ve learned that there are no real short cuts to mastering the language, but by making study enjoyable and suitable to my own learning style, I have noticed a marked improvement in my progress. Moving forward I need to remember to stick to my study plans and not be deterred by the “Cucumbers” of the world and find any opportunity to practice speaking. Through none traditional forms of learning, I’ve been able to break up the often tedious hours of study and make vocabulary learning engaging and relevant. My biggest piece of advice for anyone looking to embark on Chinese learning came from a University lecturer of mine. In response to a particular Mandarin related outburst he told me, “it is often unfair to paint a picture of weakness of students, as perceived “weaknesses” can often become strengths and vice versa.”  When it comes to my relationship with Chinese, this is definitely true.  I don’t think I would have realised how important Chinese was to me if I had not failed in my first year. By recognising the weaknesses in my study habits I was able to form the best methods of study for me. Though this still an ongoing process, by recognising how and why I study mandarin,  I think I am in a much better position to achieving my goals!

Harbin Ice Festival