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Questions about studying an East Asian language at university

I got this email from a reader about studying an East Asian Language at university. As usual with these, I think it’s good to publish them on the site so that a) other people can answer the questions and b) other people can read the answers. I’m no expert on any of the things I write about, so it makes sense to open it all up to other people as much as possible.

Here’s the body of the email:

I've just finished my AS year at sixth form and I'm trying to figure out the languages I should study at University  next year. I've been studying European languages ( French, German and Portuguese)for ages now and adore the challenge of studying new languages and it's always been a dream of mine to study an Asian language ( Chinese, Japanese or Korean) but I'm really stuck as to whether I should do a combination of European languages or just go with the exciting prospect of tackling an Asian language. I know you do not know me personally so my questions may seem a little weird and difficult to answer, but I haven't managed to find anyone who's actually studied an Asian language at a high level, as well as an European language to a good level, to be able to ask their thoughts. What I really wanted to ask is what the most rewarding thing for you in studying Chinese was, and if you've ever regretted not continuing to get formal instruction in French at uni. I guess I could just continue to study European languages on my own seeing as I love languages anyway and do it for fun ,so formal instruction isn't a 'necessity' to keep those languages alive for me, but I'm still not sure which to study. I'm afraid of studying an Asian language, which is a challenge I think I'll relish, and then realizing that I would have preferred to continue with French and Portuguese. Also, what was the worst thing or most challenging thing about studying Chinese for you? And what was your most unexpected experience studying the language and culture etc? I've never been one who cares particularly about the 'usefulness' of a language in terms of it being a reason why I should or shouldn't study it, but there are just so many that I have no idea which I should go for and I guess maybe I should begin to take it into consideration? Lastly, making an application to Cambridge for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies hasn't been on my mind for too long - literally like three weeks - and I've done a lot more reading into French and Portuguese than I have in anything strictly Asian apart from looking up stuff on the internet about the culture and history or like watching documentaries ( and of course watching anime and K-dramas) so what do you recommend I do during the summer to really show my passion for Asian culture and language? Just continue on with what I'm doing but read a few books on Asian history or something else?

There’s a whole host of different questions in there! Here’s my summary of them (I’ve just put “you” as a generic person for all of them) - please share your answers for one or more of them in the comments if you have experience of these!

  • Should you study a combination of European languages or a single East Asian language at university?
  • What is rewarding about studying [East Asian language]?
  • Do you regret not carrying on with formal education in [European language]?
  • What do you think is most challenging about studying [East Asian language]?
  • What was your most unexpected experience studying [East Asian language]?
  • Does it matter if learning a particular language is useful?
  • What should you do in preparation for applying to an East Asian Studies course at university?

So, seven questions overall. I’ll put my subjective, idiosyncratic answers here. If you’ve got anything to say about any of the questions, please do so in the comments. I’ll be interested to read other answers to these questions as well.

1. European or East Asian languages?

Guess this calls for an 因人而异 (“each to their own”). Personally I would of course say go with an East Asia language - I am running a website about the whole thing, after all. I think that for native English speakers, studying an East Asian language is more fun, more interesting, and generally cooler than doing a European one. It’s probably a lot less difficult than you think, as well.

By studying an East Asian language (or any language that’s very different to English), you’ll develop your language learning skills more than by studying European ones, I think. In other words, once you’ve learnt Chinese for a while, you’ll be better equipped to learn French, but probably not the other way round.

2. What’s rewarding about East Asian languages?

Aside from the above, it’s just pretty cool getting to a level of competence with East Asian languages. For me this is especially true of the scripts - I just think 漢字ひらがなカタカナ and 한글 are all so aesthetically pleasing on a page or screen. I find that even typing these scripts is pretty enjoyable, and they’re great fun to learn, especially Chinese characters.

3. Do you regret not carrying on with French?

Nope, not really. I’m pretty sure I could go back to it if I wanted and learn it much faster than I did before, because I’ve now learnt a whole array of language learning skills that I didn’t have. One thing that studying Chinese has made me realise is that you really don’t need formal education to learn a language. Once you’ve got the skills, learning on your own (with a little help and real exposure, of course) is by far the most effective way.

4. What do you think is most challenging about studying Chinese?

Not being familiar with the script already? That slows your reading ability down quite a lot compared to learning European languages where you’re already familiar with the shapes you’re looking at. Also the total distinction between knowing words orally and knowing the characters in Chinese. I’m sure I’m not alone in knowing far more words orally in Chinese than I do in writing.

Despite that, the main challenges of studying Chinese are probably the same as they are for any other language: motivation, effort etc. I.e., your personal context for learning the language. That will be a bigger factor than anything else, I think.

5. What was your most unexpected experience studying Chinese?

These sorts of stories are two-a-penny online so I’ll just use this chance to say that one of the most unexpected things about learning Chinese is that it’s probably not as hard as you think. Especially the spoken language  - pronunciation is a hurdle for a while but you get used to that and then it’s not particularly hard compared to other languages. Reading and writing may be harder but you make progress faster than you think. This point has caused endless debates before, but I still think Chinese isn’t as hard as people think it is.

As for cultural stuff, I never really know what to say or think about it. It seems like far too big a point to be able to pin down anything meaningful about it. I’m sure there are plenty of cultural differences, but I couldn’t really give you any clear-cut, obvious ones (I’m sure some people will in the comments). There’s as much difference within China as there is between it and other cultures.

6. Does it matter if learning a particular language is useful?

Not really. Nothing wrong with learning languages as a hobby! Personally I think the only important point is that you are actually using the language in some way besides practising. Languages are for communication above anything else. In any case, I wouldn’t worry about an East Asian language being useful, there’s plenty of stuff you can do with them!

7. What should you do in preparation for applying to an East Asian Studies course at university?

Enjoy your break from studying, not worry about it too much… Seriously though, I remember vastly over-estimating how much things mattered about my university application. I never had any life-long passion for Chinese - I chose it a couple of weeks before applying if I remember rightly. As far as I know most courses are looking for interest and motivation, and not direct experience or background in the language.

Having said that, most uni courses put a reading list up, so that might be worth having a look at. E.g. here’s the one for Cambridge Chinese Studies.

Those are my brief answers to the questions - over to you! Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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