Brushing your teeth & learning Mandarin

(This was my speech at GoEast‘s 10th anniversary, Saturday 22 October in Shanghai.)

So if you are a bit like me you probably brush your teeth every day. Twice a day, maybe thrice. And the thing with brushing my teeth is, I don’t particularly like it. I don’t hate it either, I just do it without thinking too much about it. Yet nobody has ever come up to me and said: “Wow, you brush your teeth every day? How do you get that motivation?!”

So in 3½ years of learning Mandarin, I’ve gone through 13 books (listed at the bottom) and almost 700 hours of class (private & group). And actually, I think I approach learning Mandarin like brushing my teeth. It’s not that I dislike it, but I don’t like it that much either.

This isn’t an inspiring message at all, but maybe that’s good. There’s a video online where Mandarin students are interviewed, and they’re asked why they learn Chinese and one says — because you have to say something? — he learns Mandarin because it’s inspiring. And the example he gives is the character for tear, which is made up of the water radical “冫” and the character for eye “目”, and together it makes tear “泪”. I also think it’s interesting, but on a very trivial level; the modular nature of Chinese characters. It’s not something that motivates me to keep investing time, energy, and money.

Chinese is fun to learn alright, but that’s also a little bit of a lie we tell ourselves. It makes your head hurt, it makes you tired. I think many times we foreigners start learning Mandarin and we expect to be hugely inspired by the learning process itself — we see it as travel rather than tooth brushing. But then we find out that learning Mandarin is actually hard work. And after the initial momentum and motivation, we give up.

More like brushing my teeth, I don’t rely on motivation to learn Mandarin. Don’t think about it, just do it. For three years now, my calendar has had two classes each week (two hours each time). I never skipped when I’m not feeling well or when I’m too busy, class twice a week is a fact just like the sun will rise each day. I’m not even a good self-learner. The main reason why I review and preview classes is that I don’t want to disappoint my teacher.

This sounds like a downer, but I will say this: If there is any meaning to learning Chinese, it’s in the conversations made that otherwise would not have been made. Sometimes these conversations take place in the classroom, sometimes on a field, in the forest, online, on the phone, or in the city. Sometimes these conversations are practical (haggling or getting information), and sometimes they’re really life-changing (probably need a few conversations for that).

And so my teachers at GoEast have really changed my life, and some of the lives of people I’ve met in China. Through their dedication and motivation, they’ve enabled me to speak Mandarin, something I never imagined I could, and for this I’m extremely grateful.

So I want to say cheers to GoEast, cheers to all you Mandarin learners, and cheers to all the conversations made because we teach and learn Mandarin, conversations that would not have taken place otherwise.

Books learned through:

  1. HSK Standard Course 1 (Text & workbook)
  2. HSK Standard Course 2 (Text & workbook)
  3. GoEast Hanzi (A)
  4. GoEast Hanzi (B)
  5. HSK Standard Course 3 (Text & workbook)
  6. HSK Standard Course 4上 (Text & workbook)
  7. HSK Standard Course 4下 (Text & workbook)
  8. 发展汉语口语中级 1
  9. 发展汉语口语中级 2
  10. 发展汉语口语高级 1
  11. 发展汉语口语高级 2
  12. 会通5 Mastering Chinese, listening & speaking
  13. 会通6 Mastering Chinese, listening & speaking