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Why I decided to study Chinese


為什麼?If you’re learning Chinese, you’ll certainly get asked this question a few times a week:

“So, why Chinese?”

No matter what answer you give, people always point out at that “China is rising” and “Chinese is the language of the future”. Funnily enough, I’ve never actually met someone learning Chinese who gives these reasons.

The most common answers from other people I come across are:

  • They wanted a challenge.
  • They saw Chinese characters and were fascinated by them.
  • They like Chinese food.
  • They like Chinese people (this is usually from guys who like Chinese girls…)

Now, I certainly don’t have anything against Chinese characters, food or people, but none of those are the reasons I chose to study Chinese. The actual, honest reason is: ‘China‘ was the featured article on Wikipedia on the day I was choosing university courses to apply to. No, seriously.

Previously I’d been looking at Political Science or Computer Science, but those got vetoed by the people around me as the courses would be “full of nerds”. I got online to try to think of some other possibilities, and there was the China article. We’d studied a tiny bit of Chinese history in secondary school, so I thought “yeah that could be good”.

In the UK students usually apply to five universities, which will hopefully give offers of required grades. The student can then choose a preferred and an insurance option (i.e. a high and a low offer). I ended up applying for various combinations of Chinese, Linguistics and Artificial Intelligence.

Ending up at Cambridge

My grades were pretty good in sixth form (what British people call college, when you’re 17 – 18), so I was prompted to apply to ‘Oxbridge’. As is typical for me, I procrastinated on this, until my mum pointed out that the only open day left at either university was Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Off I went.

At the open day I bumped into Boping Yuan, the head of the Chinese faculty at Cambridge. Dr Yuan is also Director of Studies for Chinese at Churchill College, and recommended that I apply there. I did, was interviewed by Dr Yuan, got accepted, and started first year in 2009. Woohoo!

Since then I’ve been studying Chinese full time (my course is actually called ‘East Asian Studies’). There wasn’t any particular reason behind me choosing Chinese, and the path was often accidental, but here I am!

 

Why did you start learning Chinese? If you don’t learn Chinese, then why not? :-P


  • http://lookoutknockhead.com Mike Newton

    Great story! Much more interesting than some of the boxed answers you indicated at the beginning of your post.

    Why did I start studying Chinese? Simple: I don’t know.

    There is, of course, a story behind that answer but I think you’ve inspired me to write my own post about it!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Mike

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      Great! Looking forward to it.

  • Dēmētrius

    I never really studied Chinese full-time. Just trying to study it on on my own.

    I think it all started when I found the [never finished] Classical Chinese manual on Wikibooks, and I was hooked… I still find Wenyan amazing. A seemingly-random combinations of characters turn out to be valid sentence. ^^”

    And, after being fascinated with Classical Chinese, I decided I need to get acquainted with baihua too. So that’s why I decided to start learning Cantonese.

  • Charles

    No real plan. After college, I went to Taiwan on a whim. Met someone, stayed for six years (never took a Chinese class)and when the relationship ended came back to the States. Thinking I should go to graduate school and not wanting to do classics (I had seven years of classical Greek under my belt), I applied to, and was accepted into, a Chinese literature program–emphasis was Six Dynasties literature. So, I sort of fell into it too.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      So did Chinese classics appeal even though Greek ones didn’t?

  • http://www.sarajaaksola.com Sara

    Well, it must be fate or something like that. It all begun when my parents lived in Beijing for a few years before I was born. Then back in Finland I’m sure they shared lots of stories from China, especially my father did. And somehow I I grew interest towards China already in primary school. Then it was just a matter of time to start studying Chinese (started classes 2008) and moved to China (2010). And here I am, studying a Chinese Language ungergraduate degree!

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      Oh wow, so you have a family history of being involved in China? Not sure I know anyone else like that actually.

      • http://www.sarajaaksola.com Sara

        My father is still very interested in China and enjoys documentaries and movies for example. He claims to speak a bit Mandarin, but his accent is quite interesting as he has never taken formal lessons.

        It seems that we who have fallen in love with China already at our childhood are not the majority.

  • Martin

    Many probably start studying Chinese because “it’s the language of the future,” but I don’t think that’s a strong-enough motivation to keep going.

    Personally, I just wanted to go somewhere far away, and teaching English seemed to be pretty much the only way for me to do so. Looking a table of possible countries, I saw that Chinese schools offered airfare compensation and free housing. *Wham!* Sold, to the clueless man in the back! Now I’m learning Chinese to be able to talk to people when I’m living in China. I wonder what’ll happen to my motivation once I come home.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      So how did it work out coming into China ‘blind’ as it were? There are some dodgy schools out there that will take advantage of that situation.

      • Martin

        I don’t know yet; I’m leaving in four days! But yeah, I’ve heard plenty about dodgy schools. I’ve done as much research as I can from abroad, and it seems reliable, but you never know. As far as I’m concerned, all I’ve got to lose is some money and time at home in front of Facebook.

  • Dan

    I started learning Chinese because I wanted to learn a 3rd language before I die. I was always fascinated with Chinese and its culture and I figure… if I’m going to learn a 3rd langauge all of my life, it might as well be a challenge.

    Personally.. speaking/hearing is easy. It’s just repetitive. Of course writing is hard but I just find it the hardest to read. Nonetheless, I started learning Chinese since January 2012 and I have been making good progress… one day I plan to visit China.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      So you’ve been studying for about four months now? So long as you keep putting the time in you’ll get there; it’s not impossible like some people seem to think.

  • Zifre

    Here’s my story:

    I was complaining about how much I hated Spanish grammar and how much cognates ruined my motivation to remember vocabulary. A friend (who speaks Chinese pretty well) told me that I’d enjoy Chinese more, that it would make sense to me. I guess she was right!

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      I’ve never heard someone say the lack of cognates between English and Chinese is an advantage to learners. Nice perspective.

      • Zifre

        I don’t think it’s actually an advantage; it just makes studying more pleasant. I think I still learned active vocabulary in Spanish at roughly the same rate as in Chinese, and my passive vocabulary in Spanish is of course much, much higher.

  • Jono

    I was surprised to read your reason for learning Chinese.

    My reasons can be found here

    Cheers Jono

  • Pingback: The motivations of a language slut | you don't have to read v2.0

  • http://jpv206.wordpress.com jp 吉平 Villanueva

    Thanks for this post! I found this post through a similar one that Jake made, and I posted my own reasons for learning Chinese here. Thanks for the inspiration.

    I’d like to think that I base the major choices in my life on a lot of wisdom and deliberation, but sometimes we the ways we get there are so trivial. I started taking Chinese because I was bored!

  • Pingback: How I started studying Mandarin Chinese · East Asia Student

  • http://study-and-learn-chinese.blogspot.com Jason 戈

    That is a great story. Probably the best reason to learn Chinese that I have ever heard.

    After a University degree in Engineering I needed a break and decided to go to Taiwan. I could have picked Korea but for whatever reason Chinese was “cooler”. That’s how I decided.

    I wish it was as good of a story as yours.

  • http://www.stanag6001.com STANAG 6001

    One Greek officer I know, studied Chinese because as he claimed “After graduating from the School of economics it’s obvious that in some years he will need it for his career”. Yes, Chinese economy is pressing on…

  • Shirley

    I am also confused by the Japanese who kept asking me “why did you choose to learn Japanese”.Sometimes I cannot give an answer since I just don’t know. Simply because I love those drama, novels and anime there. Most importantly, it’s so funny to look back the edo history(the erotic paintings sometimes shows their imagination and creativity …)But I cannot say this to my boss…

    By the way, I am a Chinese student so the “vague context”between the two country sometimes makes things much more complicated.

  • http://fluentflix.com/blog Ben Sangree

    I sort of backed into it as well. It was my junior year at college, and I was looking into study abroad programs. I was a Political Science major, and at the time was really interested in foreign policy. It came down to Cairo or Beijing for me, as two nexuses (nexi?) of power in very important parts of the world. When I learned the Cairo school had a 10pm curfew every night, Beijing it was!

    Today, 5 years later, studying Chinese simply makes me happy, plain and simple. I talk about my experiences and mindset learning Chinese here- http://www.fluentflix.com/blog/2012/05/22/chinese-learner-interview-series-ben-sangree/

  • Betl

    So nice to come across to your website. So common of me to read this blog entry first. Being too curious to know why did I ever started studying this “impossible” language-learning process, and why with Chinese?! That must be why I started with this blog post.

    I studied Chinese because the Chinese courses was cheaper than Japanese courses back when I started learning it. Here I am now, living in China, trying to mix with Chinese people, trying to live as they do so that – hopefully in the near future – I will be able to understand the way they think.

    But to be honest, I love the whole East Asia. One day I will seriously start studying Japanese rather than scribbling down some words from anime series. Maybe my love for the sound of Korean language will make me study it, too, who knows? After all, life is boring and I have plenty of time for languages.

    Keep writing, Hugh!

  • Martin R

    All my classmates at the Confucius Institute seem to have sensible practical reasons for studying Chinese – business connections, family living in China…etc. I just really enjoy it, pretty much for all the reasons you listed as typical. Maybe ‘challenge’ most of all, and I can probably add ‘vanity’. Privately, I like to think of understanding Chinese as a learnable super-power, on par with x-ray vision at least.
    One of my earliest childhood memories is of finding something packed in shredded paper full of tiny ‘pictures’ and being told it was Chinese. Maybe that sowed a seed too, who knows. Somtimes it’s hard to be sure what really motivates you – some say we just rationalise decisions that have already been made by our subconcious.

  • Denzel Duan

    The reason Why you chose Chinese is what we called ”yuanfen”!

  • http://www.hackingchinese.com Olle Linge

    I started learning Chinese more or less by accident (I thought it would be interesting to try for various reasons, then acquired a scholarship to go to Taiwan and was stuck, still is).

    However, I find it strange that you’ve heard no-one mention “Chinese is the language of the future” as a reason for studynig Chinese, given that I’ve heard that same reason probably hundreds of times (I always ask new students, so I have heard quite fair number of answers by now).

  • Emily Liedel

    Thanks for a great post! I guess I have two reasons for starting to learn Chinese. First, I want to speak all of the official UN languages fluently (yes, Mandarin is one of them, the others are English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic). But I actually started on Chinese because my sister was interested in taking a Chinese class and we signed up for a class together. Then we went to Beijing for a month to take a Chinese course. She’s stopped studying Chinese, but I’ve soldiered on (actually, more off and on, but more consistently recently).