Mandarin Anticipation and The Phases of Language Longing

by Yaska Sahara

I’m here to discuss the phases of deciding to take on a language and the anticipation and excitement it comes with! Next week, I will post about some tips of passive language learning and exposure so you can make progress with little or no active studying. (Read here when it is out)

I am writing this post because I haven’t written about, or really stopped to put into words, the language learning process one goes through before really even learning the language. I started this blog when I was already competent in five languages, so the posts I’ve written on the experiences have been in retrospect, all in one. For example, I’ve discussed, all in one post, how learning Japanese through anime eventually had me in a Tokyo language school. By the time I’d written that, I already had A’s in my JLPT N3.

Equally, giving attention to the process can make one feel quite vulnerable as you’re not putting out a finished product, so to speak. What if I end up not being good enough? What if something impedes me and I don’t learn for years and years?

My story with Mandarin, and its documentation, is going to be very different and in a few years, I hope it will be my best yet. 


It goes like so, When I was young, like 5, my parents would be forced to watch the only Chinese movie we owned, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, over and over. (I learnt only recently that they’d actually forward a lot of violent and sexual scenes). Then they’d have the joy of listening to me make insane sounds as I did what I thought was Kung-Fu. Even though we actually watched the film in its untimely English dub, something that is unthinkable to me now, I was still enthralled.


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Wikipedia


The movie’s poster (Source: Wikipedia)

Before I go on, Let me note that I do not appreciate people demeaning how people came into contact with new cultures. The fact that I was first exposed to Japanese, Korean and Chinese culture through old cheesy Chinese movies, anime and K-pop makes me no less than anyone else. Because it is not that I think those cultures are only the media I see. I knew, even from a young age, that there was so much to those places and people, and that’s what I wanted to know. These media were merely a stepping stone, an entrance, for someone who didn’t have other ways to be very exposed to the culture. Then, I started to want to learn beyond the preliminary sources and looked for more myself. I’ve always been interested in cultures far from my own, and East Asia was pretty far and different to me, a whole new area to discover. 

In this regard, my parents, ever-encouraging of my young desire to see and know as much of the world as possible, got us a Mandarin tutor. It was fun but sadly we were very young so don’t remember much. We weren’t very diligent. But we remember how kind our teacher was and the new snacks she brought us! She also made us steamed buns. Her name was Chole He! I also remember how she taught us tones with hand movements like you see Chinese toddlers doing! The tones are as follows: (They have a big impact!)


Chinese Toolbox: Tips to Help Your Practice the Tones in Chinese

Deciding when to take on the challenge and the nature of the challenge

A few years later, I got into actively learning languages, my interests in Japanese, Spanish and French were high. I learnt Hindi, more recently a little Dutch. I learnt with the opportunities that came my way but I’d always had the idea I’d learn Mandarin someday. 

But I also always knew it could likely be one of my biggest language challenges yet, being tonal, having no phonetic alphabet and having very little previous knowledge of exposure to it. That was fine. Let me clarify it wasn’t the type of thing where it was an excuse. As we know, I really am set on speaking dozens of languages by the time I die, even if it gets slower and harder with age. I put off many things, but my putting off Mandarin was never a point of guilt. I genuinely didn’t have the time or feel comfortable taking on that challenge. Once again, that is fine. Language learning really needs intention and investment.

Having said that, in the summer of 2020, corona boredom and desire for something new really smacked me in the face and said ‘just do it, damn you.’ In Summer 2020, I was supposed to be in Seoul learning Korean. I’m still going to do that, but Korean is far easier for me to pick up than Mandarin as I’m already familiar with its alphabet and many words. So I thought, ‘why the hell not? No time like the present’.

So I booked some Mandarin lessons on Italki (a site where you can get reasonably priced online language lessons with a range of tutors and a range of languages). I currently work with Liwei Tan! She’s very sweet and understanding of busy schedules and tailors lessons to you. I really enjoyed the lessons and felt proud that I’d at least started. I really felt a thrill of doing something new. 

I discuss the 6 benefits of the platform on my university blog here. It’s in the context of Dutch but still applies!

The element of the challenge is interesting. If I purely wanted a challenge, I could have done Cantonese, a Chinese language with more tones, or even Thai, tones and one of the hardest writing systems in the world (yes, even more than remembering Chinese logographs). As much I’m intrigued by Thai Culture, it’s not my focus and interest currently. Regarding Cantonese, it could be another way to satisfy my desire to learn about China. But, looking at the resources and benefits of Mandarin’s officiality, I think Mandarin is the better option. Mandarin is also often spoken by Cantonese speakers as well! But I do plan to do Cantonese if I enjoy Mandarin and wish to explore Cantonese speaking regions more!

Coming to terms with things not going as planned

Unfortunately, I didn’t keep it up every week. I was a little disappointed in myself, to be honest. But I realised I cannot be so hard on myself. I am in my last year of university for crying out loud. Uni has been very intense and stressful since I started my third year. Plus the tiny global health crisis…. It is hard to make language learning a priority like in my gap year. So, despite having this revelation in summer of 2020, I cannot tell you I’ve done 6 months of intensive language learning and now have an intermediate level of Mandarin. 

I am still glad I did those lessons, and I still feel the ambition of that ‘aha’ moment I had; ‘why not start Mandarin now, or as soon as possible? Why not conquer this challenge? Why delay it?’ So I decided that I would really work hard on Mandarin after graduation, and if possible travel to China to learn before I really start trying to build my career and do a masters. 

Language goal setting and busy lives – Passive learning and exposure
(More next week here)

Until then, I plan to build not a language base per se, but some familiarity. I’ll still do lessons when I have time. But otherwise, I’m starting small, watching a Chinese film when I’m free and just passively absorbing the sounds, trying to delve more into Chinese music, even making my bullet journal theme for 2020 Chinese new year as a way to learn more about the occasion. Podcasts are also a revelation. I’m extremely late to the party but podcasts are great; Chinese History podcasts and Chinese language learning podcasts are amazing. These things are a way to work towards my goal realistically and to not make myself stressed about it. 

I’m so excited to embark on a new language learning journey, for the anguish I’ll feel getting the hang of new grammar, words and pronunciations, to the joy I’ll feel at successfully communicating, even if it’s wrong… the small stepping stones are important and I love the sense of the wonder.

Do share any similar experiences you have and your language learning goals for this year!

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