During middle school, students are expected to have minimal exposure to a language other than English. I had Spanish and French for two hours a week in 7th and 8th grade, and I was not interested in either. When high school came, we were allowed to choose between Spanish, French (though this department was later cut because of the cleaver dubbed “Insufficient Funds” that looms over every public school), and German. I was mildly interested in French, but I wasn’t feeling the “yearn to learn” for any of those. Then, my guidance counselor made an announcement that would alter my linguistic career forever: I could take Mandarin Chinese online.
I couldn’t wait. I enrolled as soon as possible and felt hope and excitement for learning a foreign language. I signed up because I wanted to learn the language and learn more about the culture. At that point in my life, I hardly knew anything about Chinese culture. I had the face of a Chinese person, with the values of an American and cultural knowledge that could match the amount of a tourist. This online class was an opportunity to learn and enrich my then-deprived cultural identity.
The first year I took the class was a breeze. The quizzes and tests were easy, and the homework assignments took me only 15 minutes to complete, if even. Pinyin was hard to learn at first, but overall the class was easy and I passed with an A. I was on a learning high, and I was ready to take on the second part of the online course, Mandarin Chinese II.
Mandarin Chinese II lessons were more challenging, which was to be expected. But then I took the first quiz, and there was no pinyin, all the questions and answers were in characters. Prior to this moment, my teacher had me write 1-2 sheets of characters per lesson, so I had never seen so many characters at once. I felt so shocked, stressed, and unprepared. I didn’t know what the questions were asking, I didn’t know what any of the answer options said, and my teacher wasn’t super helpful. It didn’t get better after that. Review for tests consisted of just 5-8 pages of lengthy lists of characters and their meanings, which didn’t help me with grammar or sentence structure.
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My love of Chinese was quickly replaced by hatred of every second I spent on her ridiculous assignments. I didn’t learn, I just hoped I wouldn’t fail every quiz and every test. I dreaded every homework assignment, and sometimes she would have to email me because I wasn’t going at the right pace. But when I needed her help, she wouldn’t respond to emails or didn’t understand my questions or why I was struggling. I couldn’t take it. I felt like a failure, and I thought “I’m Chinese but I’m the absolute worst Chinese speaker.” I finished the class after trudging along for a year and she asked me if I would take Mandarin III, and I said no because “it didn’t fit with my schedule”.
After hearing about my horrid experience, you might think that I never went back to Mandarin. But I did. There is a foreign language requirement at my college, and one of the languages listed was “Chinese.” For the second time in my life, I registered for a Chinese language course as part of my academic experience, and taking it in college was life-changing and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Two months before starting my freshman year of college, I took the language placement test to see what level of Chinese I would be placed in. I thought that my two years of Mandarin in high school would place me at least around 150 or even 200 level. I ended up in the 100 level, with the test telling me that I knew the equivalent of someone who never saw Chinese in their life. I accepted the results and registered for Chinese 1, not knowing what to expect, because I had never studied the language in a real classroom setting.
This was my first class of the first day of freshman year, so I showed up half an hour early, met the professor, and saw my classmates arrive one by one. The total number of students taking the class was 7, including me, making us one of the smallest language classes in the school. I was worried that the class would be reminiscent of my horrid online course from high school, and it turned to be completely different.
My teacher was so supportive, and she not only taught me a great deal, she made the class equally fun and interesting. If I was ever struggling with a lesson or grammar structure, she would always be there to help me. I looked forward to every assignment, whether it be writing, speaking exercises, essays, etc. On days where class was more lax, she would show us videos about different cultural topics like food and historical landmarks. We listened to several Chinese songs, and even got to make food like mochi.
Another requirement of my college was to enroll in a Native Speaker Class, where we were required to participate primarily in speaking exercises. We were only assessed on speaking ability, and the skills we learned in NS could enhance our participation in the official language class. I loved Native Speaker from the first day. My teacher was so friendly, and in her own words the class would “teach me life.” She even gave me some Chinese movie recommendations for me to try out.
I enjoyed both parts of the language class so much, a stark contrast to my high school experience where I dreaded every assignment, learned nothing about the culture, and felt no joy or desire to keep learning. But since starting college, I discovered that a good teacher whose teachings were compatible with my learning style made all the difference. One long list of vocabulary words does not a lesson make. My language teacher and my Native Speaker instructor helped me get the “yearn to learn” Chinese again, and I’m grateful for both of them. The educational and fun classes I got to take made the difference to me as a student, and I am so glad to know that two great teachers will continue to influence students in more years to come as they pass on their knowledge. I almost gave up on learning Chinese after the one bad experience, but now I’m so glad I persisted. I’m even planning a post-grad trip to Asia. The times in high school where I had so much self-doubt and struggles learning the language seemed so long ago. The payoff of learning in the real classroom far outweighed the hardships of the virtual class, and now I’m on a journey to becoming bilingual and loving every step.
About the Author: Grace Wang is a Chinese-American college student majoring in psychology whose passion for writing stems from wanting to to give a unique and relatable perspective as an Asian growing up and living in an area of the country that lacks diversity. She aims to talk about her experiences with the hope that other people can identify with them.