The Problem with University Chinese and Ways to Solve it

“About me: At the time of writing this piece, I have completed nearly six semesters of formal Chinese language study. The first five semesters were completed at my university in America, and this most recent semester, wrapping up within the month, will be completed in Shanghai. My experience is just that, my own, and while it may be unique to me, given the chance my advice can possibly save some time and frustration for someone else, I am happy to share it.”

When you first begin studying Chinese, if you are anything like me, it is easy to fall into the trap of viewing it as just another scholastic subject. You learn at what feels like an incredible pace in the beginning as you have no sense of scale for the language, progress through the textbook at a speed reminiscent of any other introductory course, and feel the instant gratification of learning some of your favorite phrases in a language that to you, still sounds like an assortment of random sounds and inflections. Even as someone who, prior to studying Chinese, was only familiar with Romance languages, I found learning the tonal system of pinyin and memorizing new vocabulary to be no more difficult than memorizing a mathematical formula or important economic principle; with a little bit of studying I could very easily ace a test or complete a homework assignment. Unfortunately for me, just as I did for those mathematical formulas or economic principles, I committed them only to short term memory and as soon as I no longer needed them, I discarded them completely.

To add to the circumstantial misfortune of my casual Chinese learning endeavors, I live in America. So, as you can imagine, my Chinese very rarely permeated into my everyday life. This meant that after evert semester of Chinese I “learned,” I had an astoundingly low retention rate. Every new semester meant relearning the same things I had not committed to long-term memory. I had trapped myself in a cycle of learning inefficiency perpetuated by my own inability to address my poor habits. With the lack of continuity to keep me honest, my corner-cutting went undiagnosed. Most people reading this would probably assume that I should have been able to quickly address and correct this issue, but unluckily for me I was academically thriving, even if inefficiently. High test scores gave me a false sense of comfort. How could I be testing so well if I didn’t know the material? If I kept getting A’s, how could my system be broken? It did not take until I went to China for me to realize not only how poorly I had spent my time studying Chinese in America, but also how ineffective collegiate testing was at judging my mastery, or lack thereof, over the language.

Below, I would like to offer some tips to help other serious Chinese scholars avoid falling into these traps. I urge anyone reading through these suggestions to take them as that—only suggestions—rather than as a recipe or to-do list. Everyone learns differently, and you must find what works for you. Who knows, though? Maybe you’ll find your own way to improve your progress, which will then help you pass your current plateau.

1. Chinese does not begin and end in the classroom.

Studying Chinese in a classroom for only a few hours a week will never get you to a point of comfortability with the language, let alone mastery. You must be active with your learning, and it must be an academic priority for you. Although it would be nice, you can’t accidentally learn Chinese, and passive learning will take considerably longer. Some things that I have found helpful to learn outside the classroom:

  • Finding a language partner
  • Making Chinese friends
  • Joining Chinese organizations at your University
  • Watching TV shows and movies in Chinese with English subtitles
  • Watching TV shows geared toward children in Chinese without English subtitles
  • Visiting China

2. Take textbook learning with a grain of salt.

Having used several different textbook series in my time studying Chinese, I can certainly not undersell the value of a good textbook. That being said, learning strictly from a textbook will leave you limited to the vocabulary and subjects covered in that textbook. Chinese is a very colloquial language, so textbooks are best supplemented with other resources: news articles, conversations with a Chinese native, films, etc. It wasn’t until I arrived in Shanghai that I realized the difference between classroom Chinese and practical Chinese. If I may give a short anecdote, one day in Shanghai I went to a restaurant with a friend. Our table had a shortage of napkins so I figured I would ask for more. Signaling to the waiter, it only took until the last syllable of 服务员(fúwùyuán) for me to realize I actually didn’t know the word for napkin. I could explain to the waiter the cultural significance of Chinese forbearance (“忍字头上一把刀”), but I had not learned the simple word for “napkin.” This is my long-winded way of saying, you don’t know what you don’t know until you come across one of the holes in your knowledge. Practicing in real scenarios is the best way to find these holes and plugging them. You’ll end up casting a wide net and accumulating as much vocabulary as possible, which is the best way to fill these holes.

3. If you are truly serious about Chinese, go to China.

This is easier said than done, but if you have the opportunity to study or even just visit China, then I highly recommend it. This most recent semester has completely changed the way I view the language, the culture, and my approach to learning. As I mentioned, in my own experience, the discontinuity in my learning Chinese coupled with the seeming irrelevance of the language in my everyday life made Chinese feel like any other subject. Retaining what I learned became difficult, and without a superior work-ethic (which many reading this may very well have), I completely lacked efficiency. In China, you become reliant on your language skills. The level of freedom you enjoy in the country (ability to get around, ask for things, etc.) is directly linked to your language skills. You have to use your Chinese every day and you will be amazed how quickly you pick up more practical Chinese. A close friend of mine has been studying Chinese for three fewer semesters than I have, but two of his three semesters were spent in China and I can confidently say that his Chinese is far superior to my own.

4. Don’t rely on tests and grades when you’re measuring linguistic proficiency.

That A in a 300-level language class isn’t worth too much if you can’t exchange basic thoughts with a native Chinese speaker, is it? You are only as good as you are capable of using the language in real life. Real world application of language is far more important than academic success if you want to obtain mastery. If you only do as well as your class requires you then you are setting a ceiling for yourself before you start. You should always strive for beyond that. Never stop learning.

5. Set your own goals.

This point can apply to any of the previous points, but it is so important I wanted to give it its own aside. Don’t feel as if you need to slow yourself to move at someone else’s pace. I got comfortable unconsciously doing the minimum amount of work needed to keep up with my class rather than taking advantage of my time and resources. Setting goals will not only give you a higher standard for yourself but also help you more easily identify your linguistic shortcomings. Be ambitious with your goals, and you’ll surely learn much faster.

I hope some of these tips were helpful! To reiterate my disclaimer in the beginning, these are my experiences alone. It is important to find what works for you, so trial and error is a natural part of the process. If even just one person can either relate to my experiences or avoid some of the same pitfalls I have encountered, then I am happy to have shared this article with others. Good luck and happy learning! 加油!

Griffin Vasile

Griffin (葛立峰) is an American university student majoring in Chinese Language and Literature. With a desire to continue learning and an interest in Chinese popular culture, media, and consumer culture, he hopes to one day work and live in China.