The year I finished university, is the year the financial crisis of 2008 was in full swing. Jobs were impossible to get for a young enthusiastic graduate with a liberal arts degree. If anyone knows that for certain, it is me. I applied for every job ‘under the sun’ to no avail.
I grew up in New Zealand, in a small town just out of the capital. I had never really been exposed to a second language. But when I left New Zealand, to teach in South Korea and then in China, all that changed. When I lived in Beijing, I taught English to young students. In a way, I envied them a lot.
My own mother had insisted that I not learn a second language. It was her discretion that meant I left secondary school with a keen grasp of English, but no other language. I failed to teach myself French, had a few phrases of Te Reo Maori under my belt, but nothing of any real consequence.
Beijing was a shock like no other for a young New Zealander. Few people spoke English. I spent most of my time outside of work with non-English speakers. Taxi drivers, waiters, that person at the supermarket behind the checkout, all spoke Mandarin. I was forced to learn a second language in a way that had not happened in English proficient South Korea.
I had to speak Mandarin. It was here that the journey begins. I began to pick up a few phrases here and there, and before long I could say and do more and more by myself. All this happened out of necessity. But then something very strange happened which changed me. I had a dream in Mandarin.
Decoding a Language
I have to admit that my Mandarin proficiency even now it nowhere near mastery, but I acquired the ability to do a number of different things using the language. It started with very basic statements. I could then order food, introduce myself, count and barter for goods and hold a basic conversation about the weather, what had happened to me today, and express myself.
My knowledge of the language grew to eventually allow for reading, where I could identify certain characters (Hanzi-漢字) and know what they meant. I could find a hotel, restaurant, internet café and so on using my knowledge of certain written characters. The fact of being surrounded by the language gave me an advantage I think. At the time, Mandarin was really important.
Always having something I didn’t know and wanted to know helped me make progress and friends who were bilingual helped break the language into bits, translate and correct me. However, reflecting on my progress I am still to this day startled by an important question.
Having lived in South Korea for a year prior to moving to Beijing, why was my Korean not like my Mandarin? Why had I learned so much in Mandarin and only a little bit in Korean in the same space of time? One could look at the two languages and say they are both different which may have been an influencing factor, but Korean is more like English in certain ways.
Korean has a phonetic character system similar to an alphabet in English (Hangeul -한글), where Mandarin does not which seems to suggest that Korean should have been easier for me to learn. I was exposed to both in written and spoken form regularly and given the opportunity to develop my knowledge of Korean.
Why was I successful in learning Mandarin in Beijing and not learning Korean in South Korea? Reflecting on what I have learned recently whilst looking at different learning theories, I have determined what made the difference. It was through usage and doing more and more advanced things, that Mandarin become a part of who I am.
From Bricks to a House
Learning a language starts with ‘associating’. You learn from having small bits that you build into bigger bits. The phrases you acquire as a learner give you a certain result. My learning of Mandarin in Beijing progressed like this.
I built an association between saying a certain thing and getting a certain thing. I might walk into a convenience store and say “我要水” and be given some water after paying for it. But all I knew is that when I said that, I was given water. I had no idea what the parts of this meant.
I had been taught the sentence at a block, and the parts were not relevant, just getting water. I might have listened to what someone else said and gained more of an insight, listening and watched what happened. An information processing theory of learning might talk about different expressions or variations of expressions as ‘schema’.
The information I gave was stimulated by a cue or trigger, like my wanting water, to explain my learning. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher of language, talks about the learning of language along these lines. Learners take what others say, viewing this person’s intention and use these utterances to get what they want.
All this happens before finally moving to bend these utterances to be their own voice over time (Bakhan, 1981, p. 294). Bakhtin’s explanation seemed to explain my learning well. But how was it that when I lived in both Korea and China and was exposed to a new language in both instances, I managed to learn more Mandarin than Korean in the same space of time?
Bonny Norton & Kelleen Toohey, two researchers in Canada specializing in language learning, discuss how language learners who are part of a social network make substantial advancements in their language learning. They discuss the case of two people who because of their connection with a network of people and their want to negotiate a better place for themselves within that social group, significant advances are made with their language learning (Norton & Toohey, 2001, p. 313–8).
The Key Ingredient
I reflecting on this point in relation to my learning experience in Beijing compared with South Korea. In China, I spent a lot of time working at the school planning lessons and getting to know my Chinese work colleagues and had very few friends who were not Chinese.
Learning Mandarin was certainly important for my everyday life but also for me to achieve respect within the school and establishing myself. I was someone my Chinese colleagues could work with well and even go to for advice about working with foreigners because of my Mandarin speaking.
My learning was not just behavioral, in this case, but also became social. In South Korea my experience was the opposite, I spent more time with non-Koreans or Koreans who wanted to and could speak English well. I was an accepted part of this group and demands that related to me being a part of that group had nothing to do with learning Korean.
I think that Norton & Toohey add a piece of a puzzle about how learning happens. “Struggles for identity were central” alongside other factors like the opportunity to learn and attention to social practices entail really learning a second language (Norton & Toohey, 2001, p. 318). The struggle for an identity I think played a key role in me being a better learner of Mandarin.
But not only that, it created a situation where the groundwork for me to be more than just a Mandarin robot, who said a phrase and got a certain result. I stopped using Mandarin as I would have used English had people been able to understand it around me. It created the space to become a dreamer in another language. Mandarin slowly was soaking into my essence.
A Dream in Mandarin
When I lived in mainland China, I missed New Zealand immensely. I would sometimes call Mum and Dad from halfway around the world, to find myself feeling deceived. I could hear my parents accent, and it didn’t sound normal. Living in China, I had no New Zealand accent speakers to interact with. It was almost as though I had lost my ear for my accent.
This led to an interesting twist. I think part of me deep down, found it very strange to listen to the voices of my parents, that I felt very attuned to growing up, turn into something I did not recognize. Every time I spoke to my parents or family back home, it sounded (to my ear) like I had rung Australia by accident. My own accent was now more American-Canadian sounding.
My first dream in Mandarin consisted of me in the house I grew up in with my parents and close family. Long term travelers often have this dream. But this was really strange. My parents, my family, who don’t speak Mandarin were speaking Mandarin. Beijing accent and all. I woke up not sure what to make of the experience. Had I become so attuned to Mandarin, that my brain felt that is what my parents should speak.
Not hearing what I was so used to hearing when I spoke to my parents by phone, had maybe prompted this. Perhaps my traveling brain had decided to throw Mandarin in. It just so happens that I had gotten to that point, where my brain was like ‘why am I speaking Mandarin all the time but dreaming in English?’.
Whatever the reason, I realized how far down the ‘rabbit hole’ I had gone with my Mandarin learning. Talking to other ex-pats, who had also really worked on their Mandarin, dreaming in another language was a point of completed initiation. Not the point where you string together a sentence that solves a problem you couldn’t normally solve. Not when you hold a conversation in another language. But the point of dreaming in another language.
The Trick My Brain Played on Me
But that was not the final trick my brain played on me. Sometime later, I returned to New Zealand having spent a year and a half in Beijing. I had not left once. And when I did finally arriving back in New Zealand, it was loud. When I was in China, my ear would jump on any English speakers. They stood out like a ‘sore thumb’.
So naturally, when I arrived at Auckland airport, my air amplified everything as a point of focus. I was surrounded by English speakers again, and my brain did not know what to make of it. I was warned about this by a colleague before I left. It was not unique to me, and it turns out it is common for those who are returning to a language of their native tough.
When I did finally return, I applied to train to be a teacher in New Zealand, and after passing the required examinations turned it down deciding instead to go back to China. My mother was not impressed. I was through the roof excited. I had begun a journey with a language, and since I had returned I had a feeling of homesickness for speaking Mandarin.
Whilst I prepared to go back to China, I taught myself to write. I learned hundreds of new characters and began to write more and more. Suddenly, I could write. It was at that point where I began to write message after message using pinyin back to my friends in China. My mastery of more and more characters meant suddenly I could write more and more.
My parents found it difficult to make sense of the fact that I was now a Mandarin speaker. When they overheard me speak Mandarin, my mother felt I think like I had been switched with a double. My mother did not have a second language. She grew up in New Zealand, talking only English.
So before I left I made sure to paint her something using Chinese characters. “我爱我的妈妈”. For those of you who don’t know Mandarin, this means ‘I love my mother’. She still wanted to know where the original me was, but eventually, my parents grew to appreciate my bilingualism. I tried to keep the sound of their voices in my head. I left and went back to China to teach Taiwanese students.
Before I Return Once More
It has been years since I returned from China. Unfortunately, I have used my knowledge of Mandarin less and less. Sometimes I teach it to the students I have in New Zealand. Sometimes I bump into a Chinese person struck trying to navigate the city. Often though, I do slip in some Mandarin with my partner from Shanghai, although she doesn’t like my Beijing accent much.
Part of me feels a bit sad about all this. I never took classes in Mandarin. And yet I made so much progress with it. More so than I ever thought I would. But when it came time to finally return to New Zealand, I had to live with the fact that my knowledge of Mandarin was not going to be as useful as it once was.
It occurred to me that someday I might end up teaching Mandarin as my job. I would love to train to do that. But for the moment, my Mandarin feels like it is slipping away, and I have to confess I have felt like a part of me is slipping away with it. To keep it alive, I decided to book a trip to Taiwan.
In a few weeks, I get on a plane and go back to a place where Mandarin is the native language. Part of me is very excited. I think I am going to refuse to speak English the whole time I am there. “我不会说英语!” I am excited I think to use old knowledge, trucked away without use, once more. So much so that something strange happened to me that has not happened in a long time.
Asleep in bed, last week, I had a dream in Mandarin. I awoke with a sense of euphoria. Part of me feels as though I am going back to the familiar. Part of me, knowing that New Zealand is now my home, is very excited to sneak off to Taiwan and become a Mandarin dreamer once more.
About the author: Christopher Carroll is a primary school teacher in Auckland, New Zealand. He teaches young students how to read and write and has a passion for sharing his knowledge with others. He writes for Medium and a number of magazines as a freelance writer.
Barker, M., & Buntting, C. M. (2016). How do people learn? Understanding the learning process. In D. Fraser, & M. Hill (Eds.), The Professional Practice of Teaching in New Zealand (5th ed., pp. 23–55). Cengage Learning.