The College Experience: A Mandarin Miracle

by - 3:08 PM

My whole college experience was turned upside down a few weeks ago: besides credits from the actual curriculum, we also have to receive six credits through a chosen activity. That activity can be tutoring, going to events at the local Goethe Institut or taking extra classes. Most people chose the latter. There's a whole bunch of simple classes to choose from: funshopping, casino strategies, first aid classes. But I was stubborn and decided to go for one of the most difficult languages in the world: Mandarin.

I had my first class back in November. My dad had already laughed at me for days before I'd even started this class. 'You're tone deaf, you'll never be able to learn Chinese!'
Thanks for having faith in me, dad...
Tone deaf as I may be, I had no other choice than to follow these classes. After the first class, I was totally in love with Mandarin. I'd learned ten words and how to write their characters. If that was what these classes were going to be like for the next eight weeks, I'd be fine.

I wasn't fine when I came back the next week. I was having more and more trouble understanding my teacher, a tiny Chinese woman with a gigantic accent. She was funny, sweet and racist at the same time. Just a few things she liked to say:

  • Maybe Chinese people yellow because they drink water from Yellow River?
  • China look like chicken
  • You Dutch people all have big noses!
Seriously, if I said something like that with my white skin, I would've been a racist. However, this woman made such comments every ten minutes with a big smile on her face. I couldn't help but smile too.
Her Dutch wasn't very good, but she tried everything she could to make the course easier for us. When we had to learn a new character, she told us a story to make it easier to remember the character. For example nü (forgive me for not adding the right tone to the vowel), which means woman.
It lookes like this and our teacher explained: 'Your mother is a woman, right? And she has back and legs, right? That vertical line is back and legs. And horizontal line is arms. The last line, when your mom is pregnant with you, she het ugly and round.'
I'm still not sure if this was the Chinese version of a 'yo momma' joke, but I laughed way too hard. It was the last time in weeks that I would leave during Mandarin class.

Things escalated quickly in week three. We went from saying 'Hello, how are you?' straight to 'I am studying Chinese at the university of Rotterdam'. I could not write it in characters, I could not pronounce it without breaking my tongue and I was seriously confused by the grammar (or lack thereof). It got only worse when I learned to say: 'May I ask where the bathroom is?'.
In Chinese (without most of the tones since I can't type half of them), you say that like this: 'Qing wèn, wishoujian zài nàr?'. It was total suicide for my Western tongue to pronounce it. When I finally worked up the courage to try, my tonedeafness kicked in. Instead of saying 'May I ask...', I said 'Qìng wĕn', which apparently means 'Kiss me please'...
I came very close to giving up on Mandarin that day.

Three weeks before I had to take my final in Mandarin, things changed. I don't know what happened, but I experienced this magical moment in which everything just clicked. Suddenly I understood everything my teacher said to me in Mandarin.
In the last two weeks I studied the language more thorough than ever before and found myself making up sentences of my own and leaving series of characters in the corners of my notepad.

On the 22nd of January I wrote my test. If you follow me on Twitter, you already know that I scored 100%. When those three digits appeared on my computer screen, I was overwhelmed with joy. I'd worked so hard for this course, but still I couldn't believe I had aced it.
The funny thing is that I made a few mistakes in the  multiple choice part. I'd focused on sentences and characters, not on facts such as the number of native Mandarin speakers. I scored 100% because of the bonus question. Remember how I told you I was making up my own chracters? That's what saved me. The bonus question was: write this question down in characters: 'Do you study Chinese at the university in Holland too?
That looks kinda like this:

Looking back on it, I'm a bit sad that the course is over. Maybe, just maybe, I'll take anotehr class sometimes. For the next eight weeks I'll be taking another extra class: Spanish. I can't wait for it to start.

Stay Awesome!

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13 Fellow Ramblers

  1. Okay I'm so awestruck right now!!
    I mean that is mandarin you've written and you understand it that is so cool :D
    100% nerd lol :P
    Spanish? many languages are you going to learn?
    All the best though for it :)

    1. I love being a nerd :)
      I hope to be able to speak five languages before I'm 30 (including Dutch). If I don't continue Mandarin in the future, I won't count it. So far I've learned Dutch (duh), English, German and basic Spanish. I'm taking Spanish classes to improve and get past that point where you can only understand basic conversations. Next year I hope to get into a class for basic Russian. Seems fun :) And if that's not a success, I'll focus on French.

  2. I learned some mandarin in sixth grade ha ha. Do you think we can button swap? Thanks!

    1. Wow, the only language I learned in sixth grade was English. My teacher hated me for being able to pronounce the word 'three' right while all she could say was 'sree' :P
      Yeah, I'd love to do a button swap with you. I'll put one of your buttons on my swap page soon ;)

  3. Oh my gosh, that is so cool! There's going to be Manadrin classes at my school next year, but since I am in Spanish, I can't take them. But I really want to be multi-lingual-- I can speak, English (obviously), Tagalog (which sounds really weird when you pronounce it), and conversational Spanish, but within the next several years I'll probably take French and ASL too. XD Your teacher sounds funny!

    xoxo Morning

    1. Too bad that you can't take the Mandarin classes. Once you get over the weirdness it's actually fairly easy :)
      I wish I could speak Tagalog! I heard a song in Tagalog a few weeks back and I liked how it sounded, it was just so different from western languages.
      Good luck on French and ASL!

  4. Mandarin sounds like a really difficult language! I had a chinese friend and I asked her to teach me some. She wrote down a sentence for me and I tried pronouncing it. (it was something like "I am not an alien, I am a human bean" (yes, bean) or something like that and you can imagine how I butchered the Chinese pronounciation xD I've totally forgotten what she taught me- except for wo ai ni and xie xie.

    1. Hahaha, 'human bean'. I bet you accidentaly said something even weirder when you tried pronouncing it ;P
      It's been two weeks since I took the test and I already forgot half of what I learned. Mandarin is just not easy to remember XD

  5. Congrats on your 100%! :))
    Mandarin sounds really hard! I speak Slovene (obviously), English, Spanish, German and Russian and it's just an overload when I try to think of a certain word in some language because I mix three other languages :D

    1. Thank you!
      Wow, five languages, that's amazing! I wish I could speak Russian. It sounds so funny :P
      I'm always mixing up English with German, so if I have to say something in class in German, I end up saying it in English half the time XD

  6. I've always wanted to take Mandarin but sadly they do not offer it at my school. But I take German which is pretty fun :)

    a little bit of sunshine

    1. Maybe you could find a class outside of school, because Mandarin is so much fun once you get the hang of it! And you're an awesome person for thinking German is pretty fun *highfives*


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