Breaking Down Barriers

Chinese is widely considered to be one of the hardest languages to learn in the world. Mandarin has characters instead of an alphabet. There are tones, and there are even different regional dialects if you get deeper into the language. A question I have been asked a lot is, “Why did you decide to learn Chinese?”

Honestly, that’s a great question. Compared to English, Chinese is almost as far out there as you can get. Even a simple phrase, like “Hello,” would be read as nǐ hǎo or 你好 in characters. I think the most daunting thing about the Chinese language, and most things about Asia in general, is that it is so foreign and abstract to what we see, hear, and even think in Western society.

The hardest initial part of picking up a language that’s so foreign to your own is opening up to it in the first place. It’s so easy to fall into a bubble of, “I’m in my country, everyone speaks this language, and the other languages just don’t make sense.” There’s also the idea that “I speak English and everyone else should just conform to English.”

As babies, we could’ve been born anywhere. We pick up whatever tongue is spoken where we are so we can communicate and survive in the circumstances that we are dealt with; so, everyone is definitely capable of speaking different languages and being able to understand other people given some time and a little bit of effort. More than anything I believe that mindset is one of the key part of acquisition when learning a new language. When you give an earnest effort most languages are pretty easy to pick up and understand at least a minimal level.

Understanding people and hearing their perspective in their native languages can be a powerful thing. I’m still at an elementary school level in Chinese at this point, and I have a long way to go with the language. However, as I’m learning and picking up more vocabulary I’m able to have more extensive conversations.

With enough vocabulary and a solid sense of confidence you can have dialogue with people, understand their ideas, their humor, their thought processes, and make yourself feel at home in a place that is so far away from your place of origin. This goes for anywhere in the world.

I decided I wanted to learn Chinese because it was going to completely put me outside of my comfort zone. Chinese was such an abstract concept for me and was going to challenge me as a person. It was going to force me to be more open and understand something that was more foreign to me than I had ever experienced before. Isn’t that a little bit of what life is about though? Exploring new concepts, new cultures, and creating an environment for yourself of self-growth? Part of that journey for me is learning this new language.

Learning Chinese has made me more patient and dedicated. It takes time to remember characters and pair them with new words you’re learning. Words that you’ve been saying your whole life you now struggle with—just to get the same idea across to someone who wouldn’t have understood you before.

There’s been a lot of times so far on this trip where myself, or some of the other kids who know way more Mandarin, want to explain something and we just can’t say what we want to say—that’s one of the most frustrating feelings. Not being able to explain how you feel or say what you’re thinking so that the other person can understand.

Learning a new language really challenges you—especially when you are learning it in a foreign environment. It can make you feel alone and isolated. It puts into perspective how foreigners in America must feel when they can’t say what they want in English so that the majority of people in the U.S. can understand them. You feel like you don’t want to talk or speak up sometimes. On the other hand, you want to keep practicing and using what you know and keep getting better every day. It’s something that you don’t really understand how to have empathy for until you’re in a foreign environment trying to do the same thing that they’re trying to do. It really makes you appreciate the difficult parts of acquiring a new language.

Despite the hardship, when you can have that conversation with someone else it makes all of the obstacles worth it. Walking away from a conversation where you completely understand one another and can have that full interaction that would’ve been impossible before is an elating feeling. That interaction that you would have toughed through by pointing or just would have avoided altogether, now turns into one where you made a connection with a new individual. It’s one of the most rewarding things I have experience so far in my early foray into China.

People ask me all the time, “Isn’t Chinese really difficult to learn?’ My response is usually that it’s not that hard. In my opinion, that’s a loaded question. To say that Mandarin isn’t hard is somewhat of a lie. Coming from an English speaking background, it is difficult. However, with effort and time put in to learning the language I think fluency is achievable. Discipline is the hardest because you have to practice all of the time. You have to kind of rewire your brain a little bit to look at the language a little differently because it is different than English. The tones are hard for most native English speakers, but that’s mainly because we didn’t grow up using them. Experiencing obstacles does not mean that we are incapable of learning.

When you actually get into Chinese, it isn’t all too difficult to pick up. The language has a structure to follow just like English. The vocabulary isn’t that hard to pick either. You don’t have to conjugate like a lot of the romance languages. Once you learn the vocab, it never changes form. As for the characters, it just takes time to recognize what you’re looking at. It’s like a giant game of mix and match. You recognize characters and character patterns, and match the word or idea associated with it. It’s kind of like remembering icons and images.

You know that a giant M in gold is McDonalds because you saw the sign and associated them and understand that image as meaning that there is a McDonalds there. You see an album cover and associate it with whatever musician it’s from. Whenever you see a song come up with an album cover you recognize you know it’s by that artist. It’s just a bunch of associations. It’s not far off from associating the word “I”, with the character “我”. It might take a little bit of time, but it’s not far off from the consistent recognition and association we as humans do on a daily basis with everything we encounter throughout our days.

Overall, I think that learning a foreign language is really important. I think language acquisition and traveling opens humans up to ideas, cultures, and experiences that they would have never experienced before. Cultural exchange opens you up to a different point of view and perspective that many don’t encounter.

I think a lack of openness to other ideas, ways of doing things, or speaking really holds one back especially as globalization increases. Getting outside of your own bubble is crucial. The ability to sympathize and empathize with others, especially from different places in the world, is becoming an increasingly large issue. The barriers between us seem to keep growing and the walls we put up to protect what we know as “the right way of doing something” get higher and higher. In more ways than not, we are all the same. We are all humans and we all want a good life for our family and those we care about.

Fundamentally we are the same and 99.9% of the people in this world want the same thing. I think that maybe if everyone took the time to truly understand others and take in a perspective completely from your own we would understand that we are more in agreement than we are often led to believe. Languages can be a barrier in the effort to communicate our ideas and thoughts, but breaking down barriers one at a time can’t hurt, right?


Been pretty busy lately, sorry for the gap in posts! Love all of you and thank you for following me through my journey in China so far.