Zen me shuo?: What It’s Really Like to Live Out the Language Pledge

Written by Brooke Fisher, (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) Student Correspondent CET Beijing: Intensive Language, Spring 2017

“It’s like…how you say, uh, what’s that word again?” I stuttered during a morning class, trying to remember a specific English term so I could translate it over. But even though the word was right there on the tip of the tongue, I had completely forgotten it. Later, I wasn’t even able to remember it until I Googled the basic meaning and got help from a thesaurus.

A sign seen at Lingying Yemple in Hangzhou

Trust me: the Language Pledge is hard. And it doesn’t really get any easier.

If you’re unfamiliar with this term, it’s the promise between you and CET that, for the duration of the program, you will only speak Chinese 24/7. Of course a few exceptions apply, such as speaking with your friends and family back home, or a life or death situation. Excluding those few reasons, you’re constantly inundated with Chinese. It’s a great tactic to take when you’re serious about language learning, but it can also become an extreme headache.

When you’re constantly in a Chinese bubble, it’s basically impossible for your Chinese skills not to improve. Whether these improvements are tiny or massive, if you stay focused, and remain dedicated to the language pledge, the results will show. A lot of people think that the results can magically appear over night with little to no effort, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Progress isn’t linear, and you most certainly cannot learn through osmosis. Instead, progress is more of a series of ups and downs, peaks and plateaus. Somedays, you feel like you’re on top of the world, especially once you nail your coffee order. Other times it’ll be a slug through a day of unfamiliar vocabulary with little enthusiasm. I liken it to a roller coaster, with all the high adrenaline and thrills, and just as many bumps along the road.

Nice try sign, nice try. A sign in Yinchuan reads “Oenlury Tower.”

But your Chinese improvements also come at a cost: your English, if you’re like me, becomes heavily simplified and modified. While the first few weeks of the program are filled with bliss and constant euphoria, and an unwavering devotion to the language pledge, it’s as the first month breezes by, and you potentially find yourself more and more homesick, that you begin backsliding. Not in your Chinese progress, but in your dedication to only speak Chinese. You just really need a reprieve from the constant workload, and English becomes an escape. But after a while, your English conversations with friends and family become littered with Chinese phrases and it’s nearly impossible to get through one phone call without saying at least a couple of phrases in Chinese. You find yourself saying aloud and thinking, “Zen me shuo?” or “How do you say…?” Because if you’re serious about the pledge, then your thoughts—even your dreams—become infiltrated by Chinese. Trust me, the best way to gauge how far you’ve grown in your skills is by how many times you slip into Chinese when you’re in an English-speaking conversation.

Text lettering seen on our Spring Break trip to Hangzhou

Despite all the challenges that come with the Language Pledge, it’s the small victories in the end that are so worth it. From being able to tell the taxi driver where you want to go, or finally ordering your coffee just the way you like it. Maybe it’s eavesdropping on a conversation near you and realizing that hey, you actually know what they’re saying. It’s going to a restaurant and not feeling self-conscious about ordering, or singing a full song in Chinese at karaoke. Even just being able to answer the questions from the lady at the fruit stand is a small victory. Getting to these milestones at first can feel like running hurdles, but with practice, it becomes a way of life. Zen me shuo?…awesome.