If there’s one New Year’s resolution that I struggled to keep this 2018, that would be stepping up my Chinese skills. Just like other to-do lists, I procrastinated a lot on my journey this year of learning this difficult language.
It helped that I set a goal, which was to take an HSK exam by the end of the year… but what happened? Wasn’t my resolution to pass the HSK exam this year? My explanation: I realize I wasn’t ready to take it. It’s simply not realistic at the moment — just like most items in many New Year’s resolution lists.
But don’t get me wrong. That unfulfilled resolution has become my motivation to learn the language bit by bit. It’s true that an “ambitious” goal such as learning a language as complex as Chinese can’t be achieved in a short run. But that should not deter you in doing – or even trying – it at all.
If you’re at a loss where to find your driving force, here are some Chinese proverbs (谚语 yànyǔ), with the message “‘加油 (Jiayou)! Add oil!’ and start learning Chinese!” that may help you in the journey.
不怕慢，就怕停 Bùpà màn, jiù pà tíng
“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still”
Ask yourself why you’re not trying to learn it at all. Perhaps many locals are learning English and you don’t see a need to speak Chinese? Or you’re good with just using Google Translate or Pleco, or even bothering a local friend to translate whatever you want? You will always find a thousand reasons not to learn Chinese, but this is a lifelong skill that will benefit you in the long run.
千里之行，始於足下 Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zú xià
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”
Finding that motivation to learn Chinese is already a huge step, but there will be more challenges to come, so ready your oil because you need to jiayou all the way. Roadblocks come in the form of the initial language barrier, differences in grammar and phonology, the thousands of characters that you’ll need to remember, and more. All of these are difficult at first but remember: getting through one kilometer of roadblocks means one kilometer forward on that journey.
读万卷书不如行万里路 Dú wàn juǎnshū bùrú xíng wànlǐ lù
“Reading ten thousand books is not as useful as traveling ten thousand miles”
And a related saying, “An ounce of practice is more worth than a pound of theory.” This year, I’ve undertaken a lot of activities to ramp up my Chinese, including writing several Mandarin Monday articles about joining a 30-day challenge, uncovering Chinese influences on daily expressions, and learning some of the most essential components of Chinese grammar. But nothing beats applying these concepts in daily life. Okay, let’s be honest here. At my level, there are still some concepts that I don’t fully grasp after learning, but they prove to be helpful later, especially whenever I immerse myself among locals despite my awfully broken putonghua. There are times that I recognize a hanzi on a street sign because of the Mandarin Monday articles that I’ve written, making it easier for me to remember or associate that character with something.
Learning Chinese for the first time?
Here are some tips from a Chinese teacher.
师傅领进门，修行在个人 Shī fu lǐng jìnmén, xiū xíng zài gè rén
“Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself”
While writing this article, I had a conversation with a colleague from the Beijinger team about how joining intensive classes had been one of the smartest decisions I took in terms of learning Chinese. I grabbed the opportunity to join the excellent summer classes by Purple Bamboo Chinese School in Xingfucun, but that’s only one part of my journey. I had many options, but I chose what I thought was best: to do them in the morning when my mind is relaxed and free from work stress. That meant I had to make very big adjustments in my work schedule and daily activities, but in the end, it paid off. No, I’m not a Chinese master now. But I definitely saw the progress. Whereas in the first quarter of 2018 my Chinese was non-existent, now I can mumble simple sentences. It gave me hope that I can pass the HSK 2 test, even though I didn’t take it before the end of 2018.
Speaking of classes, take advantage of the seasonal packages that many schools offer. Purple Bamboo has a New Year box wherein you can get free lessons and gifts when you purchase 30- or 64-hour lessons. There are other schools that have ongoing winter promotions for their group classes as well.
失败是成功之母 Shībài shì chénggōng zhī mǔ
“Failure is the mother of success”
And speaking of the HSK test, it is definitely the goal of taking it this year, despite failing to do so, that pushed me hard to take action. A lot of times, we are driven by the rush and want to achieve our goals but forget to enjoy the journey. That feeling of being able to speak to a Didi Dache siji whenever he annoyingly calls you before you ride, or even for short pep talks when he is visibly bored because of the traffic, is a proud achievement. Those times when you slowly decipher those gigantic red posters on the streets, understand the context of Mandarin ballads, or read posts on Chinese social media without always relying on Google Translate are those moments that help me understand the locals better and help me enjoy living in Beijing.
Learning a new language is itself hard to attain, but it’s achievable and far more rewarding. Don’t be afraid to make it as a recurring New Year’s resolution because once you feel the progress, you’ll be surprised at how far you’ve gone through. After all, it’s embarking and enjoying the journey that matters. And with that, I wish you a happy New Year! Jiayou!