Holly Harrington – Keep doing what you love… in Chinese, October 2011

Recently, as I was preparing to perform in my first major Chinese stage role with a local theater company, and as I shared snippets of the performance at the past two Red Rooms, I became frustrated after hearing, from a number of people, the following reason for not attending the show:

“Sorry, my Chinese isn’t good enough to understand it.”

I had just spent months coming home exhausted after long rehearsals conducted entirely in Chinese, and ironically, the language itself was discouraging people from seeing the show. The worst part? Most of the people telling me they couldn’t attend for this reason were other foreigners who, either currently or at some time during our acquaintance, were studying Chinese. I wanted to scream:

“But how are you going to learn Chinese if you keep running away from it?!”

Some background on my own Chinese “studies” might help to explain my frustration. After I arrived in Taiwan in 2005, I began a language exchange with a Taiwanese friend. He insisted that I start by learning reading and writing, and I owe him a great deal today for putting me on the path to building decent reading skills. Still, our default language was English, so I never really spoke Chinese with my friend (even to this day, as a matter of fact), and my speaking and reading skill levels began to diverge.

Language exchange fizzled out within a year, and not until 2008 did I really began speaking Chinese regularly. By then, I’d forced myself to move out of the comfortable foreigner-friendly Guting/Gongguan/Shida area and into Ximending, which despite its touristy image, is still solidly local. I began connecting with people in Chinese more, even if our conversations were only on the most basic topics. My confidence grew.

Meanwhile, I was using one of my most beloved hobbies, music, to develop my language skills. I’d learned my first Chinese song, the foreigner standard, 童話 (Tong Hua) by 光良, in 2006, and was steadily building a catalogue of Chinese songs that I knew how to sing, even if I didn’t always understand them. I added a great deal of vocabulary this way, though most of my new words were related to heartbreak and tears, as most Taiwanese pop songs are.

Over time, I began seeking new challenges – buying tabloids, watching terrible Taiwanese dramas on DVD, and hanging out in more “local” places. The accumulation of these experiences didn’t necessarily help me improve my grammar and vocabulary the way a traditional class might have, but they did give me the confidence to continue challenging myself.

In short, I never really studied hard at Chinese, at least not in the traditional way, and although intensive study works for some people, it’s not the only way. My Chinese, which is still fairly limited, by the way, developed over time through experiences I enjoyed, not through hours of classroom interaction.

This is the trap that I think many foreigners fall into, and why their language skills remain stagnant even with diligent study. They keep their Chinese in a box, and only bring it out during class or in fits of desperation when the only way to get what they need is by using it. They never really take their Chinese out to play. Sure, having fun in Chinese is challenging and sometimes frustrating if you aren’t sure where to begin or have a hard time catching on. Preparing for the show I’ve just finished was hard because it was in Chinese, but that was exactly why I wanted to do it.

You can’t very well learn a language if you do your best to avoid challenging yourself to use it. So here’s what you do:
Pick something you enjoy doing, and do it in Chinese.
The options are endless:

  • Listen to Chinese music in the genres you like.
  • Find a DVD of a popular Taiwanese movie and watch it with Chinese subtitles.
  • Read the news or blogs in Chinese.
  • Pick up a copy of your favorite book translated into Chinese.
  • Play Chinese video games.
  • Ask a Qi Gong group in a park if you can join them.
  • Take a class (about a subject besides Chinese) in Chinese.
  • Join Plurk or Weibo.

If all this sounds like too much work, here’s one more:

  • Go to a bar that caters to locals rather than foreigners, the smaller the better.
  • And in case you’re the type who finds a public challenge more motivating than one you do at home, here’s one for you:
  • At one of our upcoming Red Rooms, share something with us in your second (or third!) language, no matter what that language is. It can be a song, a story, a poem, a joke, a news article – anything that you are interested in.

We have a number of native Chinese and Japanese speakers who already bravely do this by sharing with us in English, and I hope we can all follow their examples. Do this, and I promise you’ll feel great. Besides, you’ll probably never find as appreciative an audience as the one you’ll get at Red Room!

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