My journey of learning Mandarin has been an eventful one. Whilst I was growing up in Hong Kong. Mandarin was part of the curriculum in my high school. We were using the “bo, po, mo, fo” system instead of pin yin. I, for sure, do not have natural talents when it comes to languages. Nonetheless, the end result was shocking. After two years of “learning”, the only words that I could probably remember saying correctly was “飞机场”.
Although having a good command of Mandarin, ideally being fluent in the language, has always been a personal ambition, there was just no real opportunity to re-initiate the project. I did make some half-hearted efforts by listening to language tapes etc but my attempts were simply futile.
As China’s status rises on the world stage, it becomes all too apparent that Mandarin skills are no longer luxuries. Mandarin skills are, in fact, mission critical, at least in the field of finance that I work in. I might be late to the party trying to get a good grasp of the language, but it is better than never! And an immersion program would seem to be the ideal path to turbo-charge the whole progress.
Being an adult student turned out to be fairly straight forward. I was lucky that my fellow students were switched-on and well-rounded. It could also be that I am young at heart. I was so busy everyday doing homework whilst keeping up with my work, time just flew by. I recalled vividly being asked only once by one of my classmates whether or not it felt awkward hanging around with a bunch of twenty something students, and my answer was a categorical “no”!
My biggest challenge was less to do with my age, but with my Hong Kong background. Being fluent in Cantonese, I have the advantage when it comes to reading and writing. Of course, I needed to rewire my head when it came to grammar and vocabulary. However, the painful part was my pronunciation; I often felt that I lacked control of my tongue. I received comments with respect to my southern China accent, and/or my allegedly American Mandarin accent (according to some taxi drivers). It was amusing at times, but on a bad day, it could make me wonder just how much process I have made. I fully understand that in order to grow, one must get out of one’s comfort zone. To this end, I was forcing myself to talk to strangers with the full awareness that I might look silly, if not, outright stupid. In any case, towards the end of my tenth months in Harbin, I just cramped as much as I could in my head and tried to persuade my tongue to be as flexible as possible whenever I opened my mouth.
On reflection, I never, for a moment, worried about what it would be like being an adult student before I headed out to China. As it turned out, the experience has enriched me in many ways more than just being proficient (ok, almost fluent, with some vivid imagination) in the language. For that, I feel very fortunate. A very smart person once told me, “the mind is like a parachute, it only works when it is open!” Would I suggest “another adult” to embark on such venture? My simple answer would be “keep an open mind, and run with it!”
Thank you for a great adventure! I just wished I did it some time earlier!