My Journey to Language Adaptation

Read all the exciting things our scholars have been up to!

In my pre-departure video, I mentioned that this will be the first time I’ll be living amongst the majority. This is only true in a physical sense. My background is ethnically Han Chinese and so is 92% of China. I get quoted local prices (awesome) but I often get approached by people asking for directions. I am just as lost as many of the people asking me for directions so I am of no help. Learning Mandarin is challenging and I’ve had several encounters where I used my knowledge to the best of my ability.

Two of my friends and I went to the Silk Market. It is a tourist spot for bartering and sells fake name brand goods The sales person talked to my friends in English since they were obvious foreigners but approached me with Mandarin. She overheard me telling my friend how to ask the price of an item and assumed I was a local taking my foreign friends out to a touristy location. Thankfully the last lesson in class was all about bartering and how to butter up the sales people. Some tips and tricks to lowering the price to something more desirable is dividing their asking price by 10, acting disinterested, or complimenting their wares. I bartered for a shirt that started at 150 and said the most I was willing to pay was 15. After a few exchanges of some numbers we came to a deal to get two shirts for 80. Bartering in China is very common and is a sport in itself. You get a bit of a joyful head rush when you win the price war.  This was one instance looking like a local benefitted me.

My speaking ability is mediocre at best. I know my tones could use some improvement, but that comes with time and practice. I rarely have difficulties being understood when I go out to a store or need to ask a simple question like, “where can I find the nearest restroom?” Sometimes I get nervous speaking (especially in front of my friends that can speak better than me) and will be too soft spoken or just look a fool. In these instances, my friends usually come to the rescue or my phone’s translation APP. I try not to rely on my phone to do most of the talking. I only use it to search up how to say words or to read something off a menu. It is a crutch that I can rely on in desperate times.

Thankfully, nobody gives me a hard time for my American accent. Accents for Mandarin are very common since China is such a large country. Each province has their own accent or dialect. For example, Beijing is infamous for the Northern/Beijinger accent which is adding an “er” 儿 sound to the end of certain words. In Shanghai, they have their own dialect which is distinct from Mandarin (though it is dying out). Also in the Haidian district of Beijing (most of the schools are located in this area) people are very familiar with foreigners and them bumbling around with accented Mandarin.

Sometimes I’ll get some folks that are curious as to where I am from. Many Chinese people get excited to meet foreigners as it is an opportunity for them to practice their English. They are very humble people and often downplay their abilities. They also are very friendly in helping me improve by correcting my tones or teaching me a more efficient way to convey my message. For example, my new Chinese friend paid for my lunch at the canteen today (I temporarily misplaced my wallet). I told her, “谢谢你对午饭,下次我付对你“ which was my rough English directly to Mandarin translation for, “thanks for lunch, next time I’ll pay for you.” I was told “谢谢你的午饭,下次我请你” is a better way to convey my message. My message was understandable but had lots of room for improvement.

Learning Mandarin as a native English speaker is very difficult. The sentence structures, grammar, and ways of thinking are all so different.  For example, in English if someone said, “I want to work out more” a response could be “Great idea!” In Chinese, the first sentence would be structured the same “我想健身多” but prompts the response to be “我给你出些主意吧” which means, let me give you some ideas. You could say “你出了好主意” (you came up with a good idea/ good idea) but colloquially that wouldn’t make much sense to a Chinese person as they are seeking suggestions to become fit.

Studying abroad has so far been one of the best experience of my life. Living in China allows me to immerse myself in the culture and language. Using all the Mandarin I know to navigate my way through my days here has helped me improve every day. Sometimes I even think in Mandarin which is pretty cool to me.