Tweet A few weeks ago, Hugh Grigg, over at East Asian Student (a super awesome blog)wrote an article titled "Why I decided to study Chinese." It was great to hear his own personal story,and I thought I would share my own about getting started down the path of studying Chinese.
Flashback to 2006. A friend and I have just dismantled our personal company. After spend four years in the automotive industry building drag cars and doing custom engine fabrication for local and national customers, our business is failing to live up to our expectations. Working 80 hours a week at three jobs is taking a toll its toll on us both, and while learning a great deal in the process, we've both come to realization that building and fixing cars is a lifelong hobby, it isn't our ultimate end goal. We both decide that going back to college is a good idea. After traveling to Indonesia in 2004, I've got a taste for all things new and international, and I'm eager to begin my studies. I end up enrolling in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for the Fall 2006 semester.
Although I didn't know it at the time, my path toward Chinese can be boiled down to one fateful evening at a local diner with close friends. Although we would meet there ever week to catch up while sipping coffee late into the night, this particular evening was different. We were joined by a few other people who happened to be a mix of linguistics majors, with a focus, respectively, on either Chinese or Japanese. Their individual passions for these languages is fierce, and a small debate breaks out about which language is "better" to learn.
Personally I've had a strong passion for studying Japanese since I first read Shogun in high school, and I'd even started to teach myself some Japanese while I was running my company, since a large portion of our business involved importing rare Japanese tuning products to the United States for customers who were willing to to pay, and wait three months for the products to arrive stateside. With that being said, I was certainly intrigued by Chinese, and my friend was making a strong argument about the economic incentive attached to learning the language... in short, China's economy was going to overtake Japan in the next few years (which it did).
Coming home later that evening I was giddy with the idea of studying a foreign language. I had picked up quite a bit of Indonesian during my month of travel, which broke my "I can't learn a language spell," that was cast on me by my high school German teacher. I thought, what the heck, and decided to add a language class to my first semester. At that point I tossed economic incentive out the window and decided to choose Japanese, a language (and culture) I had been interested in learning about for years. However, when I went to pick Japanese 101 from the foreign language enrollment page I was met with a dilemma, Japanese 101 was completely full up.
Having skipped my college orientation (80 hour work weeks keep ya busy), I had no idea that I could've just walked into class the first day and asked one of the teachers to sign a class add sheet. Rather, I chose the next best option-- Chinese. I must have been destined to learn Chinese all along, because when I went to pick Chinese I was delighted to find that there was one seat left in the class, and it was all mine! I figured if I didn't like Chinese I could always switch to Japanese during my second year at school.
A few weeks later I was slacking off at work, reading a New York Times article about learning languages via podcast (a relatively new phenomenon at the time) and they were highlighting Chinese, and one company in particular-- ChinesePod. My full-time job was data entry, giving me the luxury of listening to whatever I wanted while I worked, so I decided to give ChinesePod a shot, and signed up for their 7 day free trial.
That summer before college I poured over the material, mimicking their short dialogues and paying close attention to tones. I had been a musician in high school, playing guitar, trumpet and African hand drums, and perhaps that helped me to feel the difference in tones quicker, cause I started practicing them from day one. That whole summer I worked on the basics of Chinese, learning how to ask simple questions and introduce myself. I didn't fly through the lessons, but I put a lot of effort on the material I was studying, and the things I studied I knew well.
When I arrived to my Chinese class on the first day, I was ready to put what I'd learned to the test. It was my first real world interaction in Chinese. We were going around the room, with students giving their name, year in school and major. When it was my turn to speak I went for broke: "大家好，我叫Jake, 我是一年級的學生, 我的Major是Linguistics." My teacher was impressed and actually praised my "good pronunciation" and tones. I would find out later that both of these things would still need lots of work, but it didn't matter, from that instant I was hooked.
My teacher gave me something that day I had never received when studying German for four years in high school... praise and encouragement. From that moment onward Chinese classes were the highlight of my week. I worked hard the entire semester, and my efforts were rewarded when I took fourth place among first year college students during our state wide Chinese speech contest.
The rest then, I suppose, is history. I moved to Taiwan during my second year of Chinese study and pushed myself to the limit. One year later I worked at a summer camp teaching Chinese, and then packed my bags to spend half a year in Beijing, figuring I should learn a little something about the mainland as well. During my forth year of Chinese study I picked up a job teacher Chinese to Taiwanese-American kids at a weekend school, and made the decision to become a teacher shortly there after, while attending a four day, all expenses paid, Chinese Teacher's Conference in Beijing.
Now here I am, in Taiwan, earning a Master's degree in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. After five years of studying Chinese I'm really starting get the hang of it, but there is still so much more to learn. As a teacher, however, I learned the most important lesson there is from my first Chinese class in 2006... give your students the praise and encouragement they want and need, and you will create a life long language student.
Got your own story to tell? Feel free to leave it in the comments below.