Why am I learning Chinese? I have asked this question myself a number of times, usually when I am sitting in class trying to understand the grammatical structure of a Chinese sentence.
I have been living in China for six years and surprisingly I have been able to survive with virtually no Chinese language skills. I have what I call Taxi Chinese. I can get in a taxi and get to where I need with the basic words left, right, turn around and stop. I can go to a shop, point and say one, two, or three of those, thank you.
However, I always have a sense that I am missing out. Missing out on having a richer and more meaningful experience of living in a foreign (and non-English speaking) country. Missing out on understanding the cultural nuances of a country that only comes with understanding their language. Missing out of opportunities and experiences because I can not communicate with the people around me.
I am also jealous. I live in a community with people from over 50 countries. Almost everyone I know is bilingual, many are multilingual. I watch and listen to my friends converse in one language and seamlessly move to another. I cannot describe the feeling of inadequacy when you realise your son’s 5 year old friend can speak four languages. (Japanese from his mother, French from his father, English, the language he speaks at school and Chinese the “second” language he learns at school.)
And I also feel guilty. My son has been formally learning Chinese since he was three and informally from the moment I left him in the hands of his Ayi (the wonderful woman who cared for him) while I went to work. How can I in good conscience ask my child to do his Chinese homework, explaining how important it is to learn the language of the country we live in, while not even making an effort to learn the language myself?
There is oodles of research out there about the benefits of learning a foreign language. And not just kids. Older people too.
You get smarter!!! Research from North Western University found speaking more than one language constantly exercises the brain and makes it more prepared to take on other brain-challenging tasks.
It could prevent Alzheimer’s and Dementia. A study of seniors with varying forms of dementia and literacy were evaluated and led researchers to conclude that those participants who spoke a second language were able to delay Alzheimer’s Disease, vascular dementia, and frontotemporal dementia by 4.5 years.
And your English will improve too! Focusing on the mechanics of language e.g. grammar, conjugations, and sentence structure makes you more aware of language, and the ways it can be structured and manipulated. These skills can make you a more effective communicator and a sharper editor and writer.
So, here I am two afternoons a week sitting in class learning how to where I am from. “Wo shi Aodaliya ren.” Learning how to buy 1.5 kg of apples. “Wo mai pingguo. Duoshao qian san jin. ?” And complaining that the price is too expensive and asking for a cheaper price. “Tai gui le! Pianyi yi dianr, xing ma?”
Surprisingly after six years I know more words than I thought I did. The challenge is understanding what order the words go in so I don’t sound like a complete idiot.
My goal by the end of this sabbatical is to be able to go out for dinner with my Chinese friends and speak with them in their language rather than forcing them to converse in mine.