Ní hăo! Those were the only words I knew in Mandarin Chinese when I landed in China for my one year exchange program at Xiamen University. The language barrier became more and more apparent each day I spent here. Each simple task, such as ordering food at a restaurant, asking for directions or shopping, became a whole new adventure of its own.
At the beginning, sometimes I had a friend who speaks Chinese translate for me. Other times, the person I was talking to could speak a little English. But most of the time I just ended up smiling and nodding in agreement, having no idea what I was agreeing to! It seemed to work fine, but I still had to learn some Chinese fast!
It’s really easy to practice Chinese here, since almost everyone speaks it. Not only am I speaking and learning it in class, but I’m also speaking it wherever I go. I have to say though, speaking Chinese in a classroom setting is very different than speaking it in an everyday scenario. For one thing, Xiamen locals have a different dialect and pronounce words differently than my teachers; another thing is locals speak very, very fast so you still have no idea what they are saying!
Some key phrases I learned to help me out were, “Can you please speak more slowly?”, “Yes”, “No”, and “Do you have wifi here?”. You never know when you’ll need wifi – especially when there are apps on your phone that can help you translate and learn Chinese! For those of you interested in learning Chinese, I recommend these apps: trainchinese, Baidu Translate, and WeChat. WeChat is an excellent way to practice writing and speaking Chinese with your friends! Especially since everyone has a WeChat here!
Although I anticipated the language barrier with Chinese people before my arrival, one thing I wasn’t expecting was the language barrier I would face with international students. In fact, my roommate is from South Korea and doesn’t speak English or Chinese very well. Our main way to communicate is through WeChat, since it also has an option to translate text. Other times my friends and I choose more creative methods to communicate, such as drawing a picture of an object or using hand gestures to explain what we are talking about – kind of like a game of charades.
Even though I came here to learn Chinese, I’m also learning about other cultures and languages, including Polish, Swedish, and French! Back home, English and Spanish were the only languages I used; I was never focused on learning another language because I didn’t have to. But here, I really make an effort to try to communicate with people from China and other countries, which is why I’ve developed an appreciation here for not only Chinese, but for languages from around the world.
For those of you thinking about studying abroad in a country that does not predominantly speak English, do not be discouraged by the language barrier! This is an experience not everyone will get while studying abroad!
Learning a new language can be both challenging and fulfilling. Sometimes I felt I wasn’t making any progress in my Chinese, but I started to notice that I understood more words and that the simple tasks were once again becoming simple. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that you can use the words you’ve worked hard to learn to start making deeper connections with those around you.
Sara Torres-Robles is earning a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at San Diego State University. She is video blogging from Xiamen, China for the 2015-2016 academic year.