Written by Samuel Hubbard, Washington State University | 2018-2019 Academic Year at CET Harbin
Welcome to CET Harbin! Many of you, like me, have chosen this program because of its reputation as being one of the most challenging intensive language programs in the country, and are prepared to work hard. A part of that hard work is the language pledge, which I’m sure you’re a little sick of hearing about by now. But, if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to tell you how the language pledge helped me out during my Fall and Spring semesters here in Harbin.
My Mandarin when I first arrived in Harbin was not only very bad, it was positively awful. I could barely piece together “你好，很高兴认识你“, let alone hold an actual conversation. During the first half of my Fall semester I was definitely the worst Chinese speaker in the program, but I didn’t stay that way, because of two reasons. The first was that I studied, and the second was that I religiously held on to maintaining my language pledge. The language pledge forced me to take the grammar and vocabulary that I was learning and use it to express myself, which may seem self-evident but it’s a very important part of improving. Because the language in which you express yourself is the language you will improve in, and if you are consistently expressing yourself in English your Chinese will suffer.
It’s easy to say a person will respect their language pledge at the start, but it gets hard. There will be things you won’t know how to say, that you may want to say right then, with concepts that are difficult to express in Chinese and when explained lose their specialness. Getting to know your classmates while only speaking in limited, broken Mandarin is frustrating and painful, as the feeling of being unable to actually communicate begins to produce an emotional response very close to suffocation. Because in way it is suffocation. People need to socialize almost as badly as we need to breath, and when the primary form of socialization is taken away we begin to long to be able to express ourselves freely once more.
You have two choices when this intense need to communicate hits. The first is to revert to English, and to sneakily converse with other classmates who are also desperate to speak English. Countless students have chosen this path because it’s the quickest, easiest, and most comfortable. All you have to do is start speaking English. The second choice is the difficult one, and it is to decide no matter what, no matter how badly you want to give up, that you will use Chinese to say what’s going on in your head. This is not the easy path. It’s not comfortable, and it will probably annoy yourself and those around you, but it’s worth it. Speaking in only Chinese will give you the ability to express your actual emotions, ideas, and thoughts to those around you, giving you the foundation to become truly fluent in another language.
Having gone through two full semesters of CET Harbin, I can definitely attest to the effect of the language pledge in my Chinese. I came in the absolute worst student, and by the end of my first semester I had improved to the point that I could actually make Chinese friends. Now, at the end of my second semester, I can tell that my Chinese has improved tremendously. I’m comfortable in conversations, can say what I want to fairly fluently, and have a foundation to build on in the future. The language pledge works and it’s worth it, and I hope you make the choice to hold on to it during the course of your time here in Harbin.