Progress, Perfectionism, and Learning to Try: Language Pledge

Written by Emma Tilley, (Brown University) Student Correspondent CET Beijing, Fall 2018

With a month left, we’ve arrived at the point in the semester where finals and the plane ride home are in sight, and there’s just enough time to apply the wisdom gained from reflection. I didn’t arrive as an absolute beginner in Chinese, but I also couldn’t understand most of what was said to me unless it was relayed with an exaggeratedly slow and clear voice. Any slightly nonstandard accent was beyond my comprehension and there seemed to be no correlation between the amount of effort I put in and my self-evaluated progress.

For native speakers of European languages, Chinese is notoriously difficult, not only because of characters and tones, but ultimately because the two language families have such long separate histories that there’s no background similarity to lean on. Words that can only be translated as simple conjunctions and grammatical particles – “but”, “so”, “because” and so on – don’t work the way I expect them to because they aren’t exact analogues. Chinese isn’t a code for rewriting English. Of course no language is, but among more closely related ones you can get away with writing and speaking in a way that’s (mostly) syntactically familiar. In general, the learning process is going to be much slower than if I were using the same methods to study French or Italian. This is incredibly difficult to reconcile with my perfectionist nature; if by taking intense courses and living in China I’m doing everything right, why am I still so far from my goal?

My roommate 罗兰 and I 自拍 (take selfies) now!

Partially for this reason, my relationship with my roommate started off tense. She’s balancing a demanding major, professional licensing exams, extracurriculars, and a part-time job – it’s easy for her to look at my course load and wonder how I could still struggle with so few obligations, and this is definitely a check on my pride. When the language pledge started and I realized I knew none of the words I wanted to say, our conversations fizzled before they started. I assumed that I wasn’t smart enough to use Chinese outside of the class setting, her expectations were too high, or both.

It was only gradually that I came to terms with the reality of the situation: I was isolating myself out of fear that no one would condescend to speak to me if I wasn’t already fluent. For this same reason, in a circular way, I wasn’t making progress in speaking and my relationships were suffering. I had come to China with the ideal that I would make mostly local friends, read and watch only Chinese media, spend long nights discussing philosophy and politics, etc., but I was too early in the process to jump directly to a life as seamlessly integrated as I am at home. That being said, it would still be a disgrace to leave after a few months not having done as much as I can to learn through participation. After talking about it with my roommate, she agreed I had to just try to speak as much as I could, even if it was full of mistakes, and she in turn would try to be understanding when I didn’t know how to express something simple.

A turning point came just this week, when another roommate invited me with less than ten minutes notice on a weekday night to a student play. Given that I had work to do, knew nothing about drama, and oh yeah – don’t actually speak Chinese, it was a decision that sounds bad on paper but was perfect in reality. I didn’t understand all or probably even most of it, but I was shocked to find I understood enough. Not even two weeks ago I was worried I wasn’t making the most of my time here, academically or socially, but if I went from isolated to laughing at rapid-fire jokes about bureaucracy in student clubs – that’s a non-negligible progress.

Congratulations to the cast and crew of 大学之道 on a great show!

Everyone who signs up for a language pledge program (hopefully) understands how it will test them personally. At orientation we were warned that the language pledge would challenge our determination and most of us could not be as independent in Chinese as we were used to; the truth of both of these predictions became evident within a few days. But what I believe is under-discussed is the difficulty of building and maintaining relationships in a language you’re not fluent in. All of our roommates knew what they were signing up for, as does everyone who still agrees to be interviewed after hearing a poorly-pronounced, “Hi, I’m an American student and for an assignment I need to ask…”, but this does not diminish the frustration inherent in frequent miscommunication and conversations that are often far more superficial than either party would like. It’s been difficult at times to not feel like I’m failing to make meaningful friendships when I place so much value on communication and on the discussions I’ve had with my best friends at home. But actually, even simple conversations I’ve had with Chinese acquaintances have proven illuminating for all involved (there’s no “American internet” in the same sense as the firewalled Chinese internet, for example, and in the gaokao system, “Why did you choose your major?” is usually not an applicable question). In the last month in Beijing, I’m happy to say that some of these acquaintances and I are mutually making efforts to strengthen our relationships – not yet at the ideal but working day by day towards it.