Learning how to speak Chinese is at the top of the list for plenty of foreigners who find themselves in China. Just how lofty a goal is that? Pretty lofty, judging by most learners' accounts. In one of our early issues (No. 7, "Culture Hopping," November 2007) we asked three advanced learners of Mandarin about their experiences studying Chinese. Nearly five years later, we caught up with them again to find out about their progress.
Ryan Part 1 (2007)
Ryan, 30, from Orange County, California, has spent six years in China and is currently in his third year of the Sichuan University degree program, taking advanced level 3 classes. He aims to earn his bachelor's degree in June 2008 with a thesis about internal martial arts (内功).
What made you want to study Chinese?
Since I was a kid I've been a fan of Asian martial arts and Bruce Lee. I practiced Taijiquan every day for seven years. I liked the attitude, the code of respect, the Asia you see in movies, the bowing to the master. And finally Taiqi gave me the confidence I needed to make a step forward, start learning the language, and settle in China.
Where have you studied Chinese so far?
I enrolled for one year in a community college back home, then for three semesters at 西南民族大学 (Southwest University for Minority Nationalities) within the USAC [study-abroad] program, one semester at the 师范大学 (Normal University) in Guangzhou, and three years with the bachelor's program at Sichuan University.
Why did you finally end up at Sichuan University?
My goal is to make an expat salary with all the benefits. I want to be the middle man who connects foreign and Chinese business, you know, drinking beers and smoking cigarettes. But in order to work for a foreign company I have to prove my Chinese-language skills. SCU offers a degree program with a lot of elective classes like business Chinese and, unlike other places I have studied at, most teachers put extra effort in, supporting the students even in their spare time. They call back, they take care. There are professors with Ph.D.s specialized in teaching foreigners Chinese who really mean to teach you the language and keep a good teacher-student relationship.
Were there times you were frustrated with the program?
Yes, there were, because I had to repeat a couple of classes. I didn't pass the HSK 6. I didn't study hard enough for the HSK. There is no excuse for it; I can only blame myself. But I'm happy with the program now.
Does the HSK reflect your language skills?
It's a timed test, and the old HSK doesn't include speaking. I think they realized the problems with the HSK, and the new one, which we tried, equally tests the reading, writing, speaking and listening—the four fundamentals when learning a language. I think the new HSK will be a better test once it comes out.
How do you know if the Chinese you learn at SCU is practical for your future work if you haven't managed a Chinese company?
I guess I won't really know until I get out there to do some business. However, I do have several foreign friends who are already out there in the business world using their Chinese. They say that they're making some fat cash because of it.
Do they teach you Chinese business culture, like how to deal with and lead negotiations?
No. They don't get that far in-depth. They mainly teach us basic business theory, Chinese economics, and Chinese business vocabulary. Remember, it's a language program, not a business one.
Wouldn't translation classes and interpretation classes be more suitable for what you want to do in the future?
No. I have no interest in strictly translating or interpreting. It sounds like a very tedious, lonely job.
Are you going to learn different dialects?
How many languages are we supposed to learn in one country? Modern Mandarin is the standard, but I've picked up some Sichuanese as it makes daily life easier here.
What is the most important thing to focus on when learning Chinese?
The most important question when learning a foreign tongue is "Can you hold a conversation in that language?" What if I can read the newspaper or write an essay, but I can't speak at my first job interview? For me as an extrovert, conversational skills and interaction are number one.
Ryan Part 2 (2012)
Last time we talked you were studying for your bachelor's degree at Sichuan University. Did you get the degree?
Yes. It was a long, hard road, but I finally got my degree with a thesis on the body mechanics and philosophy of a Chinese internal martial art called Baguazhang and how to incorporate it into daily life.
Tell us about the thesis-writing process.
It was a mini-thesis. It was written and defended entirely in Chinese with only about 10,000 characters—which is a lot for a foreigner. We were all assigned an advising professor to help guide us through the writing process. It was not easy. They had really high standards and basically wanted us to write it like a Chinese would have. After six months of writing and making corrections on top of corrections on top of corrections, we finally had to submit it to the university and then defend it all in Chinese in front of a panel of professors. I can say that it was the greatest achievement of my academic career.
What was the most difficult part of earning the degree?
For me, it was the HSK test. We were required to pass it to get our degrees. I was never good at those timed tests, and I had to take it quite a few times before I finally passed.
What was your score, if you don't mind sharing?
On the practice tests at home I had gotten as high as level 8. But when the heat was on I didn't do nearly as well. I got a level 6, which is passing. That's all I needed to graduate. After that day I never touched an HSK book again.
You attended a number of different Chinese-language programs and lived in China, married a local, etc. In retrospect, what was most helpful in becoming fluent in Chinese?
I don't like to use the word fluent. I'm always learning something new, and there will always be some difficulty. Being married to a Chinese girl obviously helps with the fluidity and listening comprehension at the beginning. But vocabulary we use at home is limited, and you still have to make a conscious effort to study. Despite what some people say, just being married to a Chinese [person] is not enough to make you fluent in Chinese. I think something else that really helped me was getting a proper education in the language. Going to school to learn proper grammar and usage of words [from] an experienced teacher helps weed out the bad habits. Plus at SCU there were so many different subjects, like economics, modern and ancient history, international business, etc. This creates a very large and diverse vocabulary.
You also said that one of the most important things to focus on when learning Chinese is conversation skills. Do you still think that's true? How are your written skills with the language?
If you can read and write but can't speak, then what's that going to do for you in everyday life and business here? As far as my writing goes, it's still okay. I can read and write e-mails in Chinese with little or no problem. But I haven't written anything technical like an essay or a thesis in a few years now.
One of the things you told us back then was that you wanted to earn a degree in Chinese so that you could work for a Chinese company. How has this panned out?
It hasn't panned out quite like I'd like. I did have a couple of entrepreneurial business ventures which I couldn't have done without my Chinese skills. I am looking for some other business opportunities with a "foreign" company though.
Do you still actively study the language? If not, do you ever feel your level of Chinese is stagnating or even regressing?
I don't study nearly as much as I should. And yes, I do feel like it's regressing. Especially my reading and writing. Learning a language isn't like learning to ride a bike. Unfortunately, you will forget. You either use it or lose it.
Photo courtesy of Ryan