I don’t mean to brag or pat myself on the back too much, but everyone (including my tutor and teacher) tells me my Chinese has improved. I think in this program, going abroad and learning Chinese, it is a given that your Chinese ability will improve. I just never knew it could improve as much as it has.
I’m no stranger to Chinese class and learning Chinese. In my life so far, I’ve taken seven years of Chinese, had around six Chinese teachers, and even went to China with my high school class for three weeks. But the thing is: I never spoke Chinese. In class I would always sit very still and hope that my Chinese professor wouldn’t call on me. It may have been a combination of being shy and not wanting to talk, but the biggest issue was that I wasn’t confident in speaking. I often couldn’t understand what the professor or anyone was saying to me and I was too focused on not making mistakes. I wanted to magically be able to speak perfect Chinese without any practice at all. I wanted to wake up one day and prove to everyone that I could do it.
Being in China for almost four months (something I can’t even wrap my head around) has been a reality check. There’s no way to get by without speaking any Chinese. Every morning at 8 AM I have Chinese class. I take Business Chinese in Chinese and listen to Chinese during calligraphy class. When I step outside the gates of Beiwai, the University, the first thing I hear is Chinese. Although, I am surprised to say my dreams are not in Chinese. Not yet anyway!
I think one of the biggest things that helped me is not worrying about making mistakes. When I realized and accepted the fact that I would make a lot of mistakes and could survive, I wasn’t afraid of talking to anyone. I remember my first plan of attack when talking to strangers outside Beiwai was to talk to children and people who looked my age. I slowly worked up the courage to start talking more to restaurant workers and was able finally to order food by myself (although a picture menu still comes in handy). I think it is the little things that count.
In class, I am more willing to answer my professors' questions. I still might not be able to understand every word they say, but Pleco (a translating app) sure comes in handy. I remember moments in class when I already had an answer and examples prepared in my head. Before, when I was in America I would always write down what I wanted to say, but now I try my best to speak whatever pops into my head.
All in all, communication and understanding are key. Even now I still have moments where I have to say, “I don’t understand” or “Can you speak slower?” Being in an environment where you hear Chinese every day is also really important to improving a language you're trying to learn. Everyone here and in America tells me to practice more, and I finally understand why. Now, I can’t wait to come back to America and have a coherent conversation with my old Chinese professor . . . in Chinese!