Beyond Babel: Learning Mandarin Part I

Shortly after my arrival in Longyan, Fujian, China, I came face to face with the importance of being able to speak Mandarin Chinese – and being able to speak it well. My goal was always to preach proficiently in Mandarin, but arriving in Longyan made me acutely aware of how my language skills would also make or brake my day to day life.

You see, Longyan, though a small city by Chinese standards, boasts a population of over 2 million people; and when I arrived in December of 2010, you could count the number of non-Asian people that lived in the city on just two hands! In other words, there was only a one in a few hundred thousand chance of seeing one white or black person in the city. In addition to the minuscule foreigner presence in the city, extremely few locals spoke a proficient enough level of English to be conversational. That meant that not learning to speak Mandarin Chinese was to isolate myself from the millions of people around me.

Accomplishing day to day tasks – shopping, banking, taking a taxi, asking directions, eating out, getting a haircut, and making friends – all were going to be next to impossible unless I learned the language. In China’s largest cities – Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing – and even in its middle sized cities – Xiamen, Xi’an, Dalian, etc – it is relatively easy to meet other foreigners (Americans, English, Australians, etc) or Chinese with a proficient level of English (tour guides, businessmen, English teachers, etc). But, comparatively speaking, in Longyan there were hardly no such people.

Sure, I worked at an English school, but I was one of only two foreign teachers; and the locals that taught at the school could barely carry a daily conversation in English – and they were English teachers! They were hired to teach basic vocabulary to children so didn’t need a great grasp of the language to do their jobs. The American that I worked with had arrived in China three or four years before me and was already fluent in Mandarin, had his circle of Chinese friends that didn’t speak English, and didn’t spend much time with me outside of work.

So, how did I learn the language? And how did I complete day to day tasks in the meantime? Those are questions to be answered beginning in part two…

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