By Tami Sulistyo
I went to Beijing to learn Mandarin with a study abroad program during college. I can’t say learning that language came easy. In fact I think it had been easier studying Chinese back when I was four years old living in Singapore. At that time the pale blue thin and flimsy paper books used for children to learn to read and write Mandarin were simpler, with picture and story explanations of what the Chinese characters each meant, so that we could remember them through association and context.
This time around, at age 19, I was required by my Mandarin teacher in Beijing to memorize 50 new Chinese characters each day for a quiz the following day. I always got an “A” on that daily test, but since we were then assigned another new 50 characters day after day after day, I literally felt like the characters went in one ear, out onto paper, and then out the other ear right after that as the next new ones were on their way in. I soon realized that to retain what I studied of written Mandarin, I would need to read in Chinese daily, no matter how slow and laborious it was.
My assigned roommate, Hilary and I, got on famously. We studied together, took trips outside the city together, and simply hung out. We each were assigned a friend from China who we would meet with socially. That was very official, and I always felt like we were being watched every time we arranged to do something together.
Out of a need to break away from my highly structured schedule, I bought an old red bike that carried me near and far. I adored that rickety old thing because it gave me independence and a bit of freedom. I used it daily to explore back streets in search of a single bar of chocolate to buy, which was no small feat at that time. Usually the chocolate was not to my taste, was often stale, and was always wrapped in shiny foil with an outer wrapper that had a scenic photo, but that was beside the point.
Instead, my daily commitment to finding chocolate for sale at a new place I had not yet visited was a personal way to challenge and force myself to get out of my comfort zone and practice speaking Chinese even though my ability was so very limited. This technique worked wonders in keeping me from being shy, my language skills improved, and I saw much more of China through these explorations. I only stumbled upon this language practice technique by accident, but it worked really well as a motivator. I stuck with it and my language skills improved greatly. I highly recommend anyone studying a foreign language find something like I found in my daily pursuit of chocolate, to immerse yourself in the language with full engagement.
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