As a Korean who grew up in the states from the age of 12 years old, I can be considered as a bat. I am neither an animal nor a bird, but I am both of them. From kindergarten to middle school, along with my classmates I learned Hanja, which is Classical Chinese writing that has Korean pronunciation. Hanja does not have a similar look or pronunciation to simplified Chinese and it is a mandatory for Korean students to practice and memorize strokes of overly complicated Chinese characters. It took a toll on the students to memorize these characters, but every new semester we came back with a refreshed limbic system.  After finishing the first year of the middle school, I went to America and did not get back in touch with Korean education system until the day I enlisted to Korean military.

When I started to learn Chinese, I could see how writing would be easier to Korean and everything else would be more convenient to American. Never thought that this day would come to thank the mandatory Hanja classes, but I felt comfortable with Chinese characters and did not have to look at every character as a daunting complex painting as most Americans do. The proper strokes of writing Chinese were in my roots and the characters were a lot easier than the ones I had encountered in pre-school. Although it was convenient to use my American side to live in China for everything else, but at the end depending on China to learn Chinese was the best way.

In China, English has taken a central role inside and outside of the classroom. And it is agreeable that English helps foreigners because myriad of people commonly use it in China. A quick reflection on the first day when I made a call to the school reveals how English is taking a essential role.

ME: Annyeonghaseyo meaning “Hello in Korean.”

Admission office: 办公室, 你有什么事? meaning “Admission office, what I can do for you?”

ME: Sorry?

Admission office: Hi, how may I help you?

ME: Yes, when should I come to take a level placement exam? And do I need to bring anything for the test?

Admission office: You should come on March 1st. And no, you don’t need to prepare anything for the exam and you don’t need to bring anything. We will provide you a pen.

ME: Oh, ok.

Admission office: Is there anything else I could do for you?

ME: Well, that’s it for now. Thank you.

This rather simple conversation explains how English has already settled as a common language in the University. I did try to make a conversation using Korean first thinking that they would have a person who speaks Korean since our nations are so close to one another. However, this could have led to a time consuming conversation if it wasn’t for English and I would have had to write down all the date looking numbers from the University’s website and try to guess when would be a suitable day to take the placement exam.

Moreover, the same applied around the campus. On the day when I went to the school to take the exam, an admission administrator gave a tour on the international student’s dorm. When we entered the building’s lobby, I saw a girl who had very little English and no Mandarin. She was trying to talk to the security guards in the dorm and she looked very frustrated as neither of them did not understand each other. Even after finishing the tour, she was still there now trying to get a hold of her family member to speak for her. Then I stepped in to help her out. It turned out that her sister and she were attending the University this semester and she came early with her sister’s luggage. The frustrated student was hoping to put the luggage in her sister’s room since her own was already full. I also didn’t speak Mandarin as well then, therefore I spoke English to the guards and they had it solved quickly after making a call to the office to receive family member verification. This small help gave a huge relief not only to the student but also to the guards. Having an English speaker during the process of moving into the dorm was helpful.

Also English continued to prove important in the class. During the basic level class, I had a bilingual teacher who taught grammar and had a teacher with minimal of English who taught Spoken Chinese. The grammar teacher often used English to explain and at times spoke more English than Chinese. This was inevitable as the students did not fully comprehend the definition of the word unless it was given in English. On the other hand, the spoken Chinese teacher used only Chinese to teach the class, and whenever we did not understand a definition of a word, she would replace it with another Chinese definition which we naturally did not know. Therefore, it slowed down the class and the students signed with frustration and worried that they were not improving. The grammar teacher did speak a lot of English in Chinese class, but if not doing so, it would have taken a toll on the students and impede the process of learning like the spoken Chinese class. Thus, using English to learn Chinese reaped benefits.

Although it is agreeable that English can help to learn Chinese at times, the students should not depend too much on English. It actually short circuits our study by making problem obsolete. After the first half of the semester had passed, I organized a study group. Every day after class, a few of the classmates and I came back to the classroom and used “Socrates Method” to learn Chinese. We wrote the chapter’s new words in a large font on a blackboard and helped each other out how we studied to memorize these words. Sometimes we shared our interesting stories and made various yoga postures (i.e., 大,马,鱼,山) to explain how a word had its definition. Also, even though we weren’t at the conversant level in Chinese, we were able to pick up couple of colloquial phrases from the local people and share to the classmates. For example, when we were studying 礼貌 meaning, “Courtesy; politeness,” and a student shared with us that he had overheard locals say 你没有礼貌 meaning, “You have no manner” and we made situations to use this phrase continuously.

After the semester ended, the student who participated in the study group Katie Sharp mentioned that our method helped her to prepare for the exams.

“The study group method was a good one, breaking the content into bits to help the amount of information we had to learn daily. We also used a lot of route learning which, with language, is a great tool and really helped for the exams. We learned it by route and eventually it began to start making sense,” Sharp, 25, said.

Sharp continues to use this method with her new classmates in University of Queensland after going back to Australia. In the contrast to what people expected, we were able to use only Chinese to study Chinese.

However, as we were replacing English with Chinese, we faced another problem. We were stuck on our foreigners’ pronunciation as we did not have an actual Chinese person to imitate from. We were improving to memorize phrases more efficiently, but we were saying it like how the foreigners would speak Chinese.

Solutions to this complex deep rooted English problem required unfettered imaginations. We went out to talk to Chinese college students and gave out snacks and drink. We organized couple of questions which related to what we were learning and went to Chinese students’ hangout spots. We went to places where the most Chinese students went on the campus. We stopped going to western restaurants and 食堂 meaning, “Dining hall” became our favorite restaurant. We hung out where they hung out. Although they had their guards up the first time, with free snacks they began to enjoy our talk with them. Some of them even wanted to help out on the further questions we had from the class materials as they figured out we had passion to learn and speak their language.

Sai Saing who also participated and adopted this method of studying expressed his approval.

“The most effective way to learn the language was to speak with the right person. Speaking with classmates was helpful but it was not enough. Speaking with locals improved listening as well as speaking skill in a much faster way. This way helped you spot our own mistakes especially when it came to hitting the right tones. That is why it was important to hangout with Chinese friends. Otherwise, improvement would have been inevitably slow,” said Saing, 22, said.

With the end of the semester approaching, a Chinese friend Xiao Fan 小范 who became a good friend after meeting at CoCo, a bubble tea shop, mentioned to us that he was frustrated in the beginning because he had a difficult time understanding the foreigner’s accent, but without him making a direct comment about it, he was amazed to see us self-fixing our problems and mimic his accent.

Even with the Chinese student praising our method, the study group students had to be careful with one problem. We could not let them know we knew English. As soon as they realized, they would literally drop Chinese and completely reverse the position from the teacher to the student.  As long as we were careful not to speak in English and had organized set of questions which were reviewed the next day, we learned exponentially.

Issue of whether to completely abandon English to study Chinese is back in the spotlight every semester. But I don’t agree that it should be completely abandoned. Teachers tend to recall how they learned Chinese when they were children. They naturally became native speaker by ear and imitation. They had no other language to help them understand. They had to continue to make interactions with native speakers and watch the situations and comprehend fully when and how to use the words.  However, these are children. Unfortunately, the students who are already adults cannot look at the world as children do. When children perceive information, it is as if information is copied on a wax tablet. They don’t have any complicated or nostalgic past which is reminded when they look at a situation or a word. On the other hand, when adults perceive information, it is transformed by the algorithms of the brain, which already has a certain shape after living for more than twenty-plus years of life. Thus, it is important that the students learn the basic level of the language with the help of English translation from the old layer and needs to put a new layer by perceiving details of the language through experiences and by being part of Chinese people’s life style.

It is true that stopping at a certain point to use English to learn Chinese is a difficult challenge, but it’s definitely not impossible. Our method has proven not only to improve our grades in class, but also provided us insight of Chinese people’s life style. The students don’t necessarily need to continue depending on English to study Chinese. We just need to go the extra mile to take the path less taken this path since it reaps benefit abundantly.



Author Details:

Name: Seungjoon Lee

Nationality: Korean/American

University: Donghua University