A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

With the end of the semester upon us, I know there are thousands out there who are completing a course of Chinese language learning.  Maybe it was a semester; maybe a year; maybe two years. It doesn’t matter. The hard slog is nearing an end ( or perhaps already over for you), and you’re ready to get on with the next thing, which of course includes being a life-long learner.

For most of us, studying Chinese has been and will always be somewhat of a chore. There is the day-to-day sameness of classes and tutors and personal study; the never-diminishing stack of character flash-cards that have to be memorized; another tutor time that has to be planned.

For many of us, the learning – those moments when we discover something or finally figure something out – will always be fun. Like when you figure out that the literal translation of vacuum cleaner is ‘suck dust machine.” When you begin to see that there is meaning (and beauty) in Chinese characters – they aren’t just chicken scratch.  When you use that new pattern or phrase you have been trying to master, and it works!

But for all of us, the ability to communicate in Chinese – to converse with people on a deeper level, on their terms (and using their terms) is first and foremost a privilege.

To be sure, it doesn’t always feel like a privilege to know the language and live here – when we’re walking home through a rubble and garbage-strewn alleyway; when we’re nearly turned into road kill by a homicidal truck driver; or when we’re trying to extricate ourselves from a guanxi web (personal connections).

No matter how we feel about it (an emotion that changes from day to day), the fact remains that it is a privilege for which we should be grateful.

This new language we have acquired (or are still acquiring) is not just a tool to get so that we can talk TO our Chinese friends and colleagues. It is a tool that allows us to learn FROM them.

Learn before teaching; listen before talking.

It is their country; their language; their culture, and we are allowed to be participants.

That, my friends and fellow language learners, is a privilege.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

  1. Thanks for this GREAT reminder about “privilege.” I’ll be teaching ESL to 40 Chinese students who are coming to the Morris branch of the University of Minnesota this summer. I need to brush up on my very rusty Chinese language skills in order to make a connection with them. I have my name “Tao Ya” already framed and hope to have some jioazi parties with them to make them feel at home. For four weeks they will be orienting to our way of life in Minnesota and finding out just how academia works with learning reading and writing. I’ll keep in mind that this will appear a “chore” to them but they have done the reverse of what you are doing. Keep up the great attitude!