I’ve been learning Mandarin on and off my entire life but have never gotten very far in the past. As a mixed-race Taiwanese American who grew up in the States and whose stay-at-home parent was her white mother, not only was it difficult to get the language practice I needed, it was hard to see the point. Children and their developing brains are very pragmatic. Mandarin just wasn’t used around me much.
Nevertheless, I have wanted to speak Mandarin as long as I can remember. I know that might sound confusing, so let me break it down. A young child may really want to speak the language of her immigrant father and overseas family, but she will not understand what it takes to achieve that skill. It falls on the child's caregivers to direct her language learning and, frankly, be very strict about ongoing classes and daily practice. If the child isn’t growing up in an immersive environment, whatever amount of the second language she does gain can, and will, be quickly lost without constant reinforcement.
In my opinion, and based on my own lived experience, diligent caregiver-directed learning needs to happen over the course of many years until the child is either (a) fluent, and/or (b) appreciates the importance of what she’s learning and can self-direct continued learning. At that point, she’ll be intrinsically motivated to keep using the language the rest of her life.
This is all to underscore that while I’ve personally always wanted to speak fluent Mandarin, I just didn’t receive the early learning I needed to get there as a child. As an adult, I tried to re-boot my Mandarin learning many times. But I would always get to a certain point, which replicated the last point I had reached as a child, and give up. I kept repeating this pattern, finding I was unable to push past my foundational limits. My language learning seemed to be frozen at a certain developmental stage.
Then, I moved to Taiwan last year for nine months with my son. I realized it was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give Mandarin a real shot. I started studying Mandarin again on September 23, 2021, at ShuoHao 說好 Language Center in Taipei. It was the first time I had ever studied the language intensively and seriously, as well as in an immersive environment.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
It took an incredible force of will to keep going. After initial excitement, the need for laborious work set in. It was like trying to wade through knee-high drifts of packed snow. There were days I was so frustrated I wanted to punch holes in walls. There were days I was so brain fatigued I could barely stay awake in class. And there were other days I felt so defeated I became sullen and belligerent with my poor teachers.
But I kept ploughing ahead, albeit slowly. I probably don't need to tell you – it was worth it beyond measure. About three months in, I was finally able to thaw my language learning freeze. From that point forward, I progressed further in Mandarin than I ever have. I studied the entire time I lived in Taiwan. Then, when I returned to America, I decided to continue my studies because I knew I’d regret it if I gave up again.
Today marks a year since I began my intensive studies. Though I’m closer than I’ve ever been to my lifelong dream of being fluent in Mandarin, I’m still far from my goal.
They say Mandarin is one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn, taking up to three or four times longer to learn than Latin-based languages. True, I had a head start given my family background. Now, I also have nine months of immersive study abroad under my belt. But the mountain ahead still seems insurmountable. Every day I wake up to study and every day I want to give up. How long can I keep climbing? How far will I get? Will I reach the peak? Can a middle-aged woman fly the flag of a second language halfway through life?
These are questions I guess only time can answer. Meanwhile, step by step, day by day...
Feature image is attributed to <cleverCl@i®ê> under a CC BY 2.0 Creative Commons license
© 2021 Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫