The best way to learn any language is to engage with the language. Textbooks and audiotapes will only help so far until you hit a brick wall. This brick wall is knowing how to use the language outside of a classroom environment. Everything from engaging with people socially to explaining to a police officer you were hit by the car when the light was the green man. You will never have a conversation like the one you see in your books. Engaging with the language therefore requires you to make ‘friends’.
Making friends is by far one of the hardest things you can do when you are in the midst of learning a new language. The majority of international students and workers make friends with each other before they make friends with locals. It is far easier to be friends with people who have the same struggles as you, and even easier when the international language between students is English. I had made French, Spanish, Korean and German friends before I made friends with local Chinese.
I had always thought it was due to my own insecurities. Imagine spending two years learning Mandarin and being thrown into an all Mandarin environment, it is overwhelming. I had tried my best to engage with people. I had arrived to China 3 weeks before my enrollment to University. We thought this would help us acclimatize to our new surroundings. One evening around the end of August, I wondered the streets. I came across a little barbecue stall where skewered lamb (羊肉串儿) was being served with beer. I decided to speak with the stall owner and ask about the price of the skewers. He answered in one word ‘4’. I assumed he had meant 2 yuan and bought 4 skewers.
I sat down with two other locals who I learned were regulars. We began to converse about ancient China. Eventually the conversation leaned towards me and Ireland. They had asked me “what was the difference between Ireland and Britain?” to which I replied “Ireland is an independent country”. I explained recent Irish history from the 1916 Rising to the founding of the Irish Republic. I had also made a point to compare Deng Xiaoping and Sean Lemass, two men who opened up Ireland and China to foreign direct investment and modernized Ireland and China.
This was the first time I had ever used Mandarin for anything other than small talk. I finished my beer and skewers and went on my jolly way back to my hotel room with no windows and air conditioning that smelled like cooked sausages. Even though these men had no knowledge of European, let alone Irish history, they engaged with me. We told jokes and bought rounds for each other. Perhaps they thought I was an oddity, a ‘foreigner’ speaking Mandarin. Either way this turned out to be one of my best nights in China.
Fast forward 2 months and I have made it into an advanced level Mandarin class. The classes are not engaging at all but the teachers are simply delightful. Minzu University is not well-known for its Mandarin courses like BLCU, but the environment was excellent. The University was almost entirely Chinese with half of the student body being made up of ethnic minorities. This made it easy to strike up a conversation in Mandarin. There were still a lot of international students from every part of the Earth but for the most part they could all speak Mandarin. For the longest time speaking Mandarin was far better than English in many cases. Not to discredit my Korean friends but speaking Mandarin made life far easier when we were talking. We all had enough Mandarin to spark a conversation and joke around and their level of English did not match that.
Eventually I started meeting locals. From the offset it was obvious that the majority of people who interacted with me wanted to learn English. I reckon 90% of all people who approached me wanted me to talk with them in English. At first this was fine, the conversation would always revert back to Mandarin when they became stuck. But after a few weeks I was sick to death of being asked to help someone with their English or SAT’s. I understand it takes a lot of courage to talk to a native speaker of a language you are learning but my experience had made me wary.
Students would ask me if I was interested in language exchange. I had done it before in Ireland with a few Chinese international students and I made some genuine friends. I agreed to be a language partner with a number of students, mostly all woman. For some reason it was very difficult to have a male language partner. That is not to say I prefer men or women, it is simply an observation. The language exchange would be the same no matter what. I would meet with them for a cup of coffee and I would run through what my partner needed help with. I would also try and made some casual conversation which would 9/10 would backfire. When it came to the time to speak Mandarin, it felt like trying to get blood from a stone. No matter how well I spoke or how composed I was, the reply would always be in English.
I thought maybe my language partners might be a bit unaccustomed to ‘foreigners’ speaking Mandarin face to face. It was not the case. I was a ‘dictionary with hair’ in the sense my only use is to teach English. I thought perhaps I was being a bit to hasty in my attitude. Friendship takes time and although this was to be my 10th meeting with many of my language partners, I should be patient. I decided to text a friend called Vera and invite her out for some tea. I knew she would not be busy and it could give us time to have a normal conversation.
Out goes my text in solid Mandarin with a reply back in 2 minutes. She replied ‘why not meet in the canteen, warm water is free, we can practice English’. I replied back to her ‘well why not go for a cup of tea or coffee and have a chat?‘. Again she replied ‘but we can practice on campus’. I know it might seem like I was reading into things, but this girl was a second generation rich (富二代). It was not an issue of money or time, but the fact was simply she wanted me to teach her English. She did not want to get to know me outside of the context of a language exchange. Like many others, I was a dictionary with hair. I gave up the language exchange. Not because I was not speaking enough Mandarin, but because I was not making friends or actually engaging with the language in a meaningful way.
A month later I was in the Gulou area of Beijing in a café. I had made friends through Douban meetups (豆瓣). Unlike language exchange, meeting people through Douban group meetups was far more useful for making local friends. I attended book lovers alternative music and cinema meetups. During the time I spent in Gulou I made friends not for the purpose of practicing Mandarin or English, but because I was meeting people with the same interests as me. Language was nothing more than a tool to exchange ideas. The driver of our conversations was not speaking and practicing language, but our love of cinema, music and literature. I would never have that bond with people who only wanted me to teach them.
In some senses it can be easy for someone to view me as using language partners as dictionaries with hair. In my defense I have made friends through the medium of language exchange. I was not solely interested in language but the person behind it as well. I had invited my language partners at home out for dinners and drinks and showed them the part of my country you could not see if you stayed in the tourist traps. I still keep in regular contact with these friends.
If there is anything I can recommend someone learning a language, do not engage conversation solely based upon the premise of language exchange. It can be helpful to a point but unless you are becoming friends and being social, you are only reiterating what has already been written in your textbook. Instead find people of a similar character to yourself. If you have nothing in common with someone, why be friends?