Last spring, I landed in Beijing knowing little more than “ni hao” (hi) and “zai jian” (bye). The six non-Chinese speakers in the group were placed into a four-day intensive survival Chinese class. Each class ran about three hours and purely focused on teaching us just enough spoken Chinese to get around the city: how to grab a taxi, how to bargain down prices, how to say sorry and thank you, etc. After four quick classes ended, we were at a juncture point where we could either try to supplement our not-even-skeletal grasp of Chinese with clumsy real-life interactions, or drop it altogether and resort to our natural patterns of speech.
But I was surprised at how fun it was to attempt to communicate with others in a new language. We were capable of only the simplest interactions—giving taxi drivers directions, ordering food by pointing at pictures, saying no I’m not Chinese I’m blank—but even these helped integrate us into the foreign arteries of Beijing. Being Korean, I didn’t stand out as much in Beijing as I did when I went to Bangladesh two summers ago, and I found this ability to be anonymous strangely alluring. It became an interesting game to try to discern at what point a shopkeeper or taxi driver sensed that I was not actually Chinese (usually as soon as I said something). I found that when abroad, learning a language intermingles the aspiration to be linguistically proficient and the desire to fit in more and stop sticking out as a foreigner.
Taking Chinese 1 at Duke after returning from a study abroad in Beijing where most of my Chinese acquisition was ad hoc has provided me with a lot of insight into the different reasons one could want to learn a language.
I returned to Duke in the fall and signed up for Chinese 1, a five-days-a-week immersive experience that quickly sucks one into a nexus of lectures in Languages, Chinese dinners at Grace’s, and extra drill sessions in Trent. Students are incentivized to learn through constant numerical feedback (quiz grades, homework grades, test grades, oral session grades, participation). We simultaneously learn to speak, read and write Chinese in an elaborate series of lesson plans. Our progress is immediate, standardized and ongoing.
Compared to being in China, I am learning a lot faster in this environment. I am impressed by the extent of organization possible in language pedagogy, compared to the messy experience of trying to learn Chinese through interactions in taxis, shops and the streets. Also, here, attentive Duke instructors catch the slightest mistake and enforce a level of language precision not as attainable when speaking with random strangers.
At the same time, learning Chinese in the hyper-organization and structure of formal language pedagogy is exhausting. In a few cases, it’s even discouraging, such as when a few points are taken off for a piece of homework that required a great deal of effort or when I find myself worrying about my quiz scores rather than Chinese characters I got wrong. High levels of structure can come at the expense of certain things that also help us to learn a language, such as creativity or risk-taking.
I suppose this is, to some extent, a reflection of how learning happens in the real world versus in the classroom. Up to now, I’ve always relied on syllabi, a steady schedule of quizzes and tests and final exams, professors’ office hours. As a senior who only has one more semester to take Chinese 2, I wonder about the future of my rendezvous with this language. After I graduate, there won’t be any Duke professors to plot out and assist my slow acquisition of Chinese. No more quantifiable markers of progress, no matter how inscrutable (last quiz grade 13.75/15, for example). No more office hours to work on my inability to pronounce the single syllabus Chinese word for “to go” which involves holding up a mirror to my lips to see the exact moment I slacken them (which is wrong).
Education, up to now, has felt like advanced stages of kindergarten with incrementally decreasing levels of handholding. All of this gradually prepares us to become “real people,” as my high school English teacher said once. Though up to now we’ve been weaned on the numbers-based incentive structure present in academic environments, after graduation what we continue to learn will be completely up to us. I realized that although the structure of my Chinese class definitely incentivizes me to study on a constant basis, I don’t need it in order to want to learn Chinese. Even without the structure, there are things we find inherent pleasure in learning, and it is this impulse that will guide us after graduation. Hopefully, we all have certain things that spark our curiosities and, to some extent, we will start to or continue to pursue these when we become “real people” out in the real world.
Jessica Kim is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday.
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