Written by Minnie Norgaisse, (Brandeis University) Student Correspondent CET Beijing: Intensive Language, Spring 2018
A Brief Introduction
大家好！Greetings from Beijing! My name is Minnie Norgaisse and I am blogging from Beijing, where I’ve just completed CET’s Janterm program and am heading into the Spring Intensive which begins on Monday. I’m looking forward to blogging about all things CET Beijing, from the excursions to the workload to the roommate experience and more! To kick things off, my first topic will be about the famous language pledge – a CET specialty that attracts students who are really looking to improve their language skills. If you are considering CET and are wondering what life is like under a language pledge, I hope this post and others will help you better understand it.
What’s It Like?
At 8:25 am on Wednesday, January 3rd, I and the other Janterm students filed into our respective classrooms to begin classes and to commence our commitment to the language pledge: a promise to only speak in Mandarin for the entire duration of the program. We placed our left hands on a Chinese-English dictionary and swore, “从今天开始” (starting from today) to maintain the language pledge on-campus, off-campus, and through all situations. While part of me looked forward to the challenge and accompanying prospect of improving my Chinese, the other part of me was apprehensive. Now that I’ve been through it, (and am about to go through it for a second time!) I can easily say that my Chinese has most definitely improved thanks to the language pledge, but it came with its own surprises that presented themselves over the course of the month.
For instance – did you ever consider that the language pledge might be… quiet? I was surprised to discover that the energy and timbre of the first few days of the language pledge are muted a little bit. Everyone’s trying their best to translate their thoughts, and everyone is struggling to understand each other. There’s a lot of “算了” (Just forget it) and half-apologies when someone isn’t able to get their point across. I had somewhat expected that the language pledge would cause us to quiet down for the first few days.
But what I had not expected was how loud my inner thoughts became in comparison. Every time I would open my mouth to speak in Chinese, my thoughts were completely scrambled from everything I had to remember – how do I say this? What are the tones? If I don’t understand what the other person says to me, do I laugh it off or try again? At breakfast for instance, even ordering dumplings was a struggle. It would go a little something like this:
Inner Me: Ok, so you’re going to point to the baozi in the front and say “请给我这个” (Please give me this one.)
Me: *stuttering* 请给我这个。(Please give me this one.)
食堂阿姨 (Cafeteria Lady): – says something in rapid-fire Mandarin
Inner Me: Oh no, oh no what did she just say?? Quick say something – anything!!
Me: 啊 – 对？可以？是啊。。。啊算了。就算了吧。 (Um, yes? Maybe? Yeah… oh forget it.)
There were quite a few instances like this one, where I wanted nothing more to curl up into a ball and die of shame over my lack of ability to do something as simple as order food. But luckily, it got easier over time. The language pledge has that affect – it’s not easy to maintain, and there are plenty of embarrassing moments. But once you finally get that grammar you were struggling with, or that sentence that explained an important concept, it’s all the more rewarding because you had to fight for it.
Improving or Regressing?
But how can you tell you’re improving? The honest truth is… sometimes you can’t tell. The teachers here are our best cheerleaders, constantly telling us that we’ve made progress, but sometimes it’s a lot more difficult for you to feel it. I have a journal entry from about half way into Janterm where I wrote in all caps, “Am I regressing?! I feel like understanding Chinese is so much harder now. What is happening?!?!” This was the result of quite a few embarrassing instances where I either misheard someone or just completely couldn’t understand what they were saying.
Now that it’s been over a month though, I can honestly say that these embarrassing moments are when you’re learning the most. When put through an awkward situation, you reflect on it and wonder – how can I avoid this from happening again? For me, this came from the number of times I’d be in a taxi trying to navigate my way home. Not knowing simple navigational phrases such as “turn left!” or “go straight” resulted in a lot of awkward pointing and a pretty disgruntled driver. Was that embarrassing? Of course it was, but that’s what gave me resolve to learn these phrases so that history wouldn’t repeat itself. Because of that awkward moment, I can now navigate home in relatively proficient Chinese without having to rely on hand gestures. I’d say that’s some pretty tangible improvement!
Of course, it’s important to remember to cut yourself some slack at times. Being completely immersed in a foreign culture and language is no small feat! You’re bound to experience a few hiccups, many of which will be embarrassing. So, how can one navigate the language pledge, hiccups and all, and still come out sane?
- Don’t be too hard on yourself! Remember that complete immersion is a really big change and you’re bound to feel lost sometimes. Be sure to take care of yourself and to go easy on yourself, especially for the first few weeks.
- When you need a break from the constant chatter, find new ways to immerse yourself! I’ve found that I’ve really enjoyed discovering new Chinese artists and listening to their music, or watching Chinese TV shows and dramas.
- Talk with others when it gets tough (while adhering to the language pledge of course). Everyone else on your program is going through the same thing and can relate to your situation. Sometimes all you need is to remember that you’re not going through it alone – everyone else is also going through the pledge and you’re all ultimately in this together.
The language pledge is definitely hard, but do-able. By the end of whichever program you choose, once you see the progress you’ve made, you’ll find that it would have been worth it! In the words of our teachers, “好好学习，天天向上!” (Study hard, and you’ll be sure to improve!)