Speaking Chinese…, By John Iuga

There is a reason why a common expression in English is to tell someone they’re speaking Chinese when you can’t understand them: because there is absolutely no way to understand Chinese. It is so vastly different from any western language that the only thing you can do when a Chinese person speaks to you is to look at them blankly.

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To add to your woes you can’t guess what they’re saying because Chinese does not have the same Latin base as a lot of western languages have (French, Italian etc.). Also, you most likely didn’t learn Chinese in school and therefore you can’t use any of the five phrases you learned in school: “¿Dónde está la biblioteca?”

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However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel: you can just learn it! I’ve been living in China for 14 months now, and after the first four months of studying I was able to talk platitudes with the taxi drivers and ask McDonald’s employees for the chef’s special of the day. I started learning because I wanted to make my life easier for myself instead of relying on Google translate and ridiculous hand gestures and I am quite proud of how far I’ve come considering I only knew three words when I landed in Beijing. Reading and writing Chinese characters is still the hardest thing for me to get my head around, but all that takes is daily practice. I’m not saying you have to immerse yourself to the point where you find squatting a more viable sitting position that sitting on a chair….

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…but if you can get over the initial fear or just asking people or just sparking up a conversation with your colleagues in their native tongue, you will find people won’t be as judgmental as you think, you’ll be able to laugh together about how bad you are at speaking, and you might actually pick up a thing or two along the way. Thankfully, Aihua provides a very good Chinese teacher who can help you regardless of your level of proficiency. There are also many Chinese learning apps such as HelloChinese and Duolingo which can help you along the way (they did for me!).

Life is what you make of it and if you keep telling yourself you will never learn such a difficult language then that is all you will achieve. Put your head right and just try! You will find it was worth it for the fun!

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