Studying Chinese: The Struggle for Survival

Article by Carlos Po

September 8, distant past: the air is so thick with tension you could cut it with a knife. Some flip through their notebooks frantically, sweat dripping down their foreheads. Others attempt to recall characters learned months ago half-dazed. All share the same feelings of panic.

Welcome to Room 1057, home to Chinese 4 and students anticipating in horror their imminent oral assessment.

But why do Chinese classrooms often resemble the trenches of the Somme? Firstly, Chinese, unlike Spanish and French, is a character-based language. Characters have no relation to the way they are pronounced, meaning it is impossible to read Chinese aloud unless you understand the characters. Furthermore, there are over 8,000 of them! Chinese also uses tones, so the same phrase, pronounced differently, has a new meaning. In fact, there is a Chinese poem, “Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den”, that intones one word 96 times to create 96 different meanings.

So why take Chinese? For starters, nearly 1.4 billion speak some form of Chinese as their first language making proficiency in Chinese an advantage. Additionally, ISM students, being from an affluent school, are often aspiring future leaders and businesspeople thereby making Chinese valuable as a means of accessing a large group of people.

As for the language’s reputation, Chinese teacher Ji Hua begs to differ. While she acknowledges that Chinese is a hard language to learn, she cites a TED talk by Carol Dweck in saying the only way to grow is to fail, and constant success leads to apathy. And it is this ethos that is central to the Chinese program wherein students are given tests that could pass as IB-Level. Ji Hua has this to say to her students: sink or swim – suggesting success is not only a possibility but a choice.

“The program is quite challenging, almost to the point of giving up,” says a student wishing to remain anonymous. “But I know persevering will be worth the troubles.” Many students echo this sentiment, and agree that while Chinese is an uphill battle, it is worth the struggle.

However, for others, the choice of topics is an issue. They argue that topics like population studies, and the Yangtze River as a livelihood source, seem more at home at a Social Studies class than a class meant to teach language proficiency.

But while Chinese is arguably one of the hardest languages to learn, and the program may have questionable topic choices, it is also one of the most precious opportunities ISM can offer. So embrace it and persevere, valiant soldiers.