This week’s CLI Perspectives blog entry is written by CLI Immersion Program student Cory Donovan. Cory moved to China in January 2012 without any background in Chinese at all. But Cory’s CLI teachers agree that he is learning Chinese at an astounding speed. What’s his secret? Read on to find out!

The Sport of Linguistics

By Cory Donovan, Immersion Program Student

Graduating from college can be a scary time. Finding a “real” job, moving back home to your parents’ house, and an end to worry-free days are no longer a fear, but reality. Having been out of college for just over a year, I decided I wanted to acquire a new skill. I wanted a skill that would allow me to grow as a person and become more marketable to future employers.

I think it is safe to say that everyone is aware that our world is becoming more interconnected every day. Knowing this, I made it a goal of mine to learn a foreign language. Already having a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration, I figured learning Mandarin Chinese was the way to go. So two months ago, without any previous knowledge of the language, I set off to the Far East in hopes of accomplishing this goal.

study chinese in china

Cory venturing into the Mandarin language learning field

Since one of the more popular sports in China is basketball, I would like to describe my experience so far through a basketball analogy. I may lose those who are not familiar with the game and perhaps confuse most. But, I encourage you to read on because in the end the message is clear and valuable for those wondering what learning Mandarin in China is like.

Like with most things in life, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Remember 11th grade Algebra or Trigonometry? Yeah me neither, because if you are not using those complicated formulas on a day-to-day basis, your brain hits the permanently delete button. Imagine trying to learn how to play basketball without the opportunity to play in a real 5-on-5 game. Learning Chinese in a classroom is like practicing free-throws or lay-ups. It can be boring at times and definitely needs to be done, but what’s the greatest fun and where one improves their skills the most is actually playing the game.

Living in China, there is always an opportunity to get in the game. Although Chinese people are very friendly and eager to help foreigners practice their Chinese, some places are better than others. One of the best places I found to do this is where people cannot physically leave when you are trying to talk to them. A favorite place of mine is in a taxi.

study in china

From taxi drivers to locals, everyone is a potential Chinese teacher in China

Of course, being new to the game my skills are somewhat lacking. Often my attempts of communicating in Chinese are met with blank stares and mass confusion. The first time I tried to communicate with my taxi driver I was taken to the wrong place. He shoots…and…air ball.

However, this did not deter me. In fact I practiced harder, and more important, kept playing the game. During my next taxi ride, I decided to throw up another shot. Without much hope for a response, I asked the taxi driver, Ni jiating you ji ge ren? (“How many people are in your family?”) To my surprise he responded without hesitation, San ge, wo you yi ge nü er (“Three, and I have one daughter”). And just as important, I understood him. Swish, nothing but net.

study abroad in china

Cory practicing his Chinese with local community members

Some days my “game” is better than others which is to be expected, but the more I practice and get in the game, the better my Chinese gets. I can feel myself starting to get into a groove — hitting a few open shots and even making a slam dunk or two. I guess one could say learning Chinese is a lot of hard work, but if you take the perspective of playing a game, it can also be a lot of fun.  I think tomorrow I’ll join a “pick-up game” at a local Guilin mi fen (Guilin rice noodle) restaurant.

study abroad in china

Cory exploring his classroom — an entire country