Living the Language Pledge: CET Harbin

Written by Daniel Weaver, (Tufts University) Student Correspondent CET Intensive Chinese Language in Harbin, Spring 2016

There are, generally, two ways of looking at the CET Chinese Language Pledge. For those inclined to silver linings and brighter angles: under the language pledge studying at CET Harbin you’re never truly in class, or not “class” in the sense to which most American students are accustomed. Chinese language study is not a specified field designed to grant understanding in some particular element of the world, like physics and political science, but the frame through which you understand and interpret the world around you. Everything is relevant. With the right perspective, you’ll never be bored.

On the other hand, you’re always in class. Always learning. Harbin, and China in general, is a language classroom where the bell never rings, and you will constantly feel the pressure to study, practice, read, and speak, speak, speak, Chinese. It can will be exhausting, but no one ever told you Chinese was easy.

This is, in short, the language pledge’s terrible efficacy. When your primary mode of communication is English (or your first language, whatever it may be) you are constantly translating, either out loud or mentally. To a degree, this is unavoidable. The first few weeks under the language pledge my relationship with Chinese was across a Chinese-English translation monologue constantly running in my head. Even now, new Chinese words and sentences require several instances of translation before understanding.

But if you follow it, and probably only if you follow it, the language pledge dismantles this English bridge bit by bit. I find myself, in class and out, noticing that as I focus on understanding the Chinese around me, my thoughts follow suit. Thinking in Chinese, even if it’s a simplistic Chinese rife with faults; I unconsciously begin composing texts to family in Chinese; even accidentally slip Chinese words into conversation with them on the phone.

All of this is not only exciting, but, I think, critically important. The most fascinating, exciting, and valuable thing about studying a foreign language where it lives is, in my view, less about your ability to communicate that you want to go somewhere, ask what something is, and then eat the thing. It’s that in the process of studying a foreign language you are actually beginning to build an understanding of a foreign culture in the only way that a culture has and will ever be understood: through the language in which it thinks, breathes, and speaks. Culture and language, studied like this, are impossible to separate.

The language pledge will advance your Chinese level, sure, but in the process give you new eyes. For students like me, who for two decades have seen the world only and ever through English eyes, the experience is *ahem* eye-opening.

Of course, I’m yet almost entirely blind in Chinese, but we’re getting there.

Every word I finally master, every twist of phrase I understand, every sign I can read, however tortuously slow, is a brief glimpse into the inner-workings of Chinese culture. I’m an English major, and studying in the States I’ve discovered a special appreciation for the infinite and nuanced ways in which language is used not only to create culture, but constantly reflects it. When you’re immersed in the way CET Harbin wants you to immerse you, the opportunities for moments of cultural clarity like this are numerous, practically unavoidable. And to tell you the truth, you’ll find yourself unable to take advantage of them all. Sometimes you won’t have the energy or the will, at times accepting confusion is easier than struggling towards understanding. It’s true.

But it’s also true that you’ll wake up the next day with fresh eyes, literally and figuratively. You’ll head to class carrying a slightly heavier vocabulary, your cultural understanding millimeters deeper. Chinese is sinking it’s teeth into you just as you try to get a grasp on China. And if you don’t believe that this semester-long ‘class’ will inundate every corner of your life, wait until you dream in Chinese.

Then tell me all about it.

But, please, only speak Chinese.