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'One Cannot Learn a Language Without Constantly Speaking It'


Jie Ying Mei '19 (center)
Jie Ying Mei '19 (center)

When I was a freshman taking Mandarin classes, I did not plan to study abroad in Beijing. Near the end of my sophomore fall semester, I suddenly decided to apply to Associated Colleges in China. Since I wanted to study Mandarin during my four years at Hamilton, the appropriate action was to study abroad to advance my language skills.

When I began learning Mandarin, I struggled a lot with speaking. When presented with the opportunity to improve my speaking skills at ACC, I decided to apply because I knew I would be immersed in the language through the language pledge. However, at the same time, I was worried about the pledge.

I have never spoken Mandarin outside of the classroom at Hamilton, so when I landed in Beijing, I did not feel confident enough in navigating the city with the two-year Mandarin knowledge I had acquired. I got into a cab with another ACC student, and we both told the cab driver the address of the dorm in broken Mandarin. We stumbled a bit, but luckily the driver understood. Relief washed over us, and we were proud of ourselves for managing to communicate with the cab driver with the amount of Mandarin we knew.

After the orientation, the other students and I signed the language pledge, and from that moment forward, we were only permitted to speak Mandarin. The first couple of weeks were rough. I was not the only one who had trouble communicating with other students because most of us were not accustomed to speaking Mandarin all the time. Although I studied Mandarin for two years, my vocabulary was limited because I did not know many conversational words, only academic ones. Many of my conversations with others were short and superficial. I could not properly express myself, and it was particularly frustrating when I could not finish my sentences. I began to question whether I made the right decision to study in China because of the frustrations I was experiencing. However, when I thought back to my original goal, I knew I could not give up because I did not go all the way to China just to give up when faced with an obstacle.

One cannot learn a language without constantly speaking it, so I tried my best to incorporate new vocabulary and sentence patterns I learned in class in everyday conversations with teachers and other students. Through this I improved and became more comfortable speaking Mandarin, which enabled me to have more complex conversations. Towards the end, I noticed a huge improvement in my Mandarin because I hesitated less when speaking and was able to finish my sentences. Since the teachers would correct us if we made mistakes, I became less afraid of making mistakes. This allowed me to learn from my mistakes and improve on grammar and sentence patterns, which was what I struggled with when I was learning Mandarin, in addition to speaking.

Studying abroad in Beijing gave me the opportunity to improve my speaking skills. Without an external factor to encourage further practice of the language, my speaking skills would not have improved. After experiencing the excitement of improving in the language, I began to consider double majoring in history and Chinese when I returned to Hamilton. The experience in Beijing allowed me to realized that I really enjoy learning Mandarin and that I have the desire to continue using Mandarin when I graduate.

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