The Great Wall of Language( 2)


A few weeks ago, the first sixteen members of Yenching Academy's third cohort arrived at Beida. They are all bound by a shared inexperience in the study of Mandarin, and their past forays and perspectives on language study expose an even deeper bond: a profound willingness to learn. This mentality reflects the words of Associate Dean John Holden: “Anybody who tries to come to grips with China, a country with a very rich civilization and a long history [has] to be humble in recognizing that there are things you will get wrong.

"Getting things wrong" has defined these first two weeks in Beida's Chinese Language Summer School. Tone-deaf pronunciation of Mandarin words has led many a laoshi or shifu to furrow their eyebrows in displeasure or confusion. Poor knowledge of characters has turned simple apps into terrifying obstacles. Gone is the eloquence these scholars enjoy in their native languages; in comes the child-like pointing when ordering food at the canteen.

Slowly but surely, all sixteen students are making progress. Tone changes start to become sharper as their ears become accustomed to the music of Mandarin. Greetings, responses, and fillers such as zai4jian4, dui4, and na4ge start to become second nature. Some have even applied two weeks of learning out in the big, wide world—catching cabs, ordering food, and asking strangers for directions.

Mandarin demands hard work—perhaps more so than many other languages—but these Yenchingers have stepped up to the challenge. Let's see why!

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Anthony Marchese | Canada

A Canadian proud of his Italian descent, Mr. Marchese describes his relationship to Italian in largely emotional terms. He is part of a family of 50 Toronto-based Italians, and Italian is the medium through which bonds of familial affection grew between generations. Unsurprisingly, Anthony's favorite word in Italian is famiglia.  

Such a personal connection to foreign languages can only bode well for Anthony's Mandarin-learning journey. Indeed, he has enjoyed the steep learning curve. His favourite word in Chinese is 米饭 (mi3fan4, or “rice”).


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Miryam Amsili | USA

Miryam describes herself as a language lover, and with good reason. First came Spanish via her Colombian mother. Her favorite word in that language is ferrocarril ("train"), because of the difficulty non-native speakers have in pronouncing it. Then came Hebrew, courtesy of her Moroccan father, who grew up in Israel and passed on his fluency in this language, including fantastic words such as Bakbuk, the onomatopaeic word for "bottle" (think of the sound people make when drinking from the bottle). Miryam's slightly mischievous desire to decode the "secret" language her parents would use led her to learn French, and with it the absolutely hilarious word, pamplemousse ("grapefruit"). Enticed by the sheer difference between these languages and Mandarin, Miryam is studying Mandarin in the knowledge that this will allow her to form 关系 (guanxi, "relationships") in the field of international business. Perhaps it is only fitting that someone with such an ear for languages chose (ting1, "listen") as her favourite Mandarin word so far!


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Travis Gidado | USA

For many Western students, learning French in school is an agonizing experience. Not for Travis. He dreamed of learn French since a young age, and has been studying it intensely for years. Full of profound quotes such as l'homme qui sait deux langues on vaut deux (“The man who knows two languages is worth two men!”), he has impressed many French businessmen, and even received a job offer as a result. Given such experience, it is unsurprising that Travis describes Mandarin as “opening a whole new world.” The charmingly quirky side of Travis’ personality is reflected in his favourite French word: circonflexe, the name for the hat-shaped mark that one finds in word such as vêtement (clothes). His Chinese word is not so quirky ( or ji4, "chicken”) but he promises to choose a new favorite word that matches the philosophical calibre of his French after a few more months of study!


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Joshua Tupler | USA

An enthusiastic researcher of one of the most relevant contemporary topics in international politics—nuclear weapons—Josh is excited to “experience the heart of Chinese modern politics and culture” in Beijing. Josh remarks that learning Mandarin has so far been a humbling experience, and that encountering Chinese characters has led to deeper appreciation for how meaning is expressed through language. Josh considers learning Mandarin a way of showing respect for China's ancient culture and civilization. His favourite word in Chinese is the character (yang2), since one of its meanings is "ocean." This reflects his love for the sea as a Florida beach boy and water sports enthusiast. 


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Lidiia Demchenko | Ukraine

Lidiaa already boasts an impressive linguistic portfolio; she is fluent in six languages:  Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, Russian and Ukrainian. In her own words, “language is not just letters and sounds. Culture is language, and language is culture.” Lidiaa regards the process of learning a new language as liberating in itself, since it can challenge societal labels. Lidiia’s approach to language learning is fearless, summed up by the golden rule of “not being ashamed of what you don't know.” Her favorite word in Chinese is 自行 (zi4xing2che1, or “bicycle”), because it came up in her first conversation in Chinese, while in a taxi from the Beijing airport!


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José Luís Burnes | Mexico

As a Mexican who studied in the U.S., José is no stranger to culture shock. He reflects on the initial struggles he faced switching from Spanish to English, from José Luis to just José. But he remarks on how it made him more multi-cultural, creating a new identity that he grew to embrace. With a Mexican flag hanging proudly in his Shaoyuan dorm, José is most proud of the concept of "community" rooted in his native tongue, and found in various phrases, like mi gente, mi comunidad, mi pueblo. Until he learns the Chinese equivalent for this concept, José's favourite Chinese phrase remains the rather handy 贵啦 (ta4i gui4 le! or "too expensive!").


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Daniel Vasconcelos | Brazil

Daniel's hometown, Belo Horizonte, translates into "Beautiful Horizon"—a synonym for his ever-expanding linguistic capabilities. A methodical learner, Daniel always tries to focus on specific techniques to learn a language. For pronunciation he often compares and contrasts the sounds of Mandarin with similar sounds in Brazilian Portuguese. When studying characters, he looks for connections between his immediate environment and the specific character he is studying to increase retention. Daniel notes that language learning requires “a different thought process in one's brain, to understand this language.” His favorite word in Brazilian Portuguese, Felicidade ("happiness") , and Chinese, (ai4, or "love"), suggest that he will be a passionate student for many years to come.


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