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Learning Asian languages: A dummy’s guide

Sophie Ryan

Society and culture | Asia


There is a divide in Australia. The divide I am talking about here is between those with proper access to Asian language learning and those without. Many people, unfortunately, will respond to this concern, saying something along the lines of:

‘In most places people can speak English anyway.’

There is a real problem with this attitude, and perhaps even writing about this issue is cliché and futile. But I write from a first-hand, Caucasian, Australian perspective on this issue. Let me tell you friends: truly learning another language is hard, especially Asian languages like Mandarin, and you have to be patient. There is no such thing as learning a language in a few months online; you won't survive when you travel to that actual place. You have to want to learn the language, and keep interested. Sometimes, this gets tough when the learning gets difficult.

So imagine this: a first year university student studies a foreign language for the very first time. That was me two years ago. Did I jump into the deep end? Definitely. Was it a silly move? Maybe. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

To begin with I found Mandarin next to impossible. In fact I probably found it the most difficult out of most in my class. That is why I am a self-professed dummy. After thirteen years of education in regional NSW and no background in Asian languages, I started studying at the best Asian languages institution in Australia. I had no idea what I was doing half of the time and looking back I sure did make it harder for myself than needed. How did I do it? I tried not to be too dismayed by my marks, and just like Dory, I kept on swimming. In other words, you learn the methods of Asian language learning, and it does get easier.

When you’ve mastered the way to learn this new language, you start to enjoy it a bit more, and this is where the fun begins. You start to have long conversations with your lecturers, and inadvertently insult or amuse them.

Let’s say you wanted to go to the internet café in China, you would use the word wǎng ba,(网吧). However if you use those words in a slightly different tone(王八), you are effectively saying 'mother f**cker.’ In summary, be careful with your Chinese tones, very careful.

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However, there is also an all too important response to my argument that mustn’t be ignored: ‘I have no interest in learning another language. I know nothing about the culture, and how will it help me in my daily life?’

For the average Australian, this is a very good point, and only a few years ago, I would have made this point myself.

When I started year 11, and my priorities were focused on: a) what subjects scale well? b) what subjects do I enjoy and will be good at? and c) what subjects scale well? The attitude towards learning a foreign language, if even considered by students, was that it was too hard for its HSC scaling, so why bother? I’m sure I was not alone when I say this.

This is the type of attitude that is making Asian language learning hard work for us Australians. It is hard, but it doesn’t have to be. From my personal experience what could have made it an easier transition into tertiary life would be if I had a wider access to learning any Asian language from a much earlier primary school age, not just French and German, which was offered. It is at this age bracket when the mind is a sponge; it’s not work at all. Whether or not youngsters are interested in the language or not, being exposed to a wider variety of Asian languages would spark an interest in later learning of these languages and cultures.

That’s the kind of approach we ideally should have when thinking about learning foreign languages, because if we think of it as work too much, we’ll burn out. As a university student, this is a work in progress for me. But I’m a self-confessed dummy, so if I can do it, you can too. We are all aware of the ‘Asian Century’, so why not say 你好!?

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