Guest post: Unconventional ways of learning Chinese

Today I’m featuring a guest post by Sarah, fellow Shenzhen-expat and the face behind the blog Reclaim Your Fearlessnesss that gives tips on how to live the life you want to live and not let others dictate it. I love her blog and have nominated her for the Liebster Award last month (see her answers here). Sarah has grown up in Canada, but has lived in 6 different countries across the world. She has been living in Shenzhen much longer than I have and is currently working on her writing career as a blogger, and is also an international educator and entrepreneur. Here’s her article:

When I first arrived in Shenzhen, I had no idea that people would automatically assume I could speak Chinese. Yes, both my parents are from Hong Kong, so I definitely look Asian.

I’d go into stores and store attendants would try to sell me things. I must have had a bewildered look on my face because they’d stare at me for a few seconds and then they would just walk away. Whenever I was in restaurants, I’d order in English. Servers would look at me like I was crazy.

So I did the only thing that made sense to me: Learn to speak Chinese. I could have taken classes or gotten a tutor, but I was too cheap for that. Instead, I thought I would learn by trying to

  • repeat words that locals would say to me
  • Google-translate menu items and taxi directions and practice them on locals
  • point to random items on menus and see what dishes I get.

Naturally this led to some funny incidents.  I can’t remember how many times I’ve made really embarrassing mistakes. There are too many to name since I’ve been in Shenzhen for almost 5 years, so I’ll point out the 3 that I remember the best:

  1. My husband and I go to a new restaurant one evening. At this point I am pretty confident about speaking and reading the menu, so I start ordering a bunch of food. The waiter tells me that I ordered too much food, that what I told him would be enough to feed five people. I tell him I want the first three dishes I ordered and to cancel the rest. After we finish our dishes, the waiter brings one of the dishes I canceled. I try telling him that it isn’t ours, but he doesn’t understand me. One by one, more dishes arrive. I finally catch the attention of the waiter whom I ordered from. I ask him why we have all these dishes. He tells me, “You told me to delay bringing these dishes until after I give you the first three dishes you ordered. So that’s what I did.”
  2. I go to a restaurant that has a Chinese only menu. Being a little too confident with my abilities, I go ahead and order what I think is a chicken with onions dish. A waiter brings it over and it is nothing but hot chilli peppers and something resembling meat. I go ahead and ask her what the dish was, and she replies “You got chicken intestines and hot peppers.” Needless to say, I have a very bad stomach ache that night.
  3. I want to take a taxi to the Shenzhen/Hong Kong border to meet a friend for lunch. I flag down about 2 taxis and try to tell the drivers where to go in Chinese. None of them understands me and they both drive off. After a little while I am getting really hungry so decide to get a bag of chips to snack on. A taxi pulls up to me all of a sudden and asks me where I want to go. With a mouthful of chips I mumble my destination. He understands me and drives me right to the border.

Have you ever tried learning a language in unconventional ways? Did it work out? Let us know in the comments’ section.

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Would you also like to write a guest post that is somehow connected to the topic of this blog? Send me an e-mail at chinaelevatorstories{at}gmail.com. I reserve the right to refuse publishing guest posts for any reason.

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6 thoughts on “Guest post: Unconventional ways of learning Chinese

  1. I admire Sarah’s daring. I’m the type who studies a language but doesn’t use it enough because I’m afraid of making a mistake. Sara’s mistakes were very funny, especially #1 and #3. I sympathize with her about the intestines.

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  2. Although Asian, I’ve never had any formal Chinese lessons but I do speak Mandarin. I learnt as I went along. I learnt Cantonese from watching TV – and learnt to read bits of Chinese from karaoke on TV. 🙂

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    • I can only recommend listening to songs and watching TV in the language you are learning or want to learn. It’s hard at first and you might not understand a lot, but with time it gets much easier. It’s also what I did in order not to forget all my Chinese while I wasn’t in China.

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    • There must have been quite a lot, but I can only remember one or two – once a friend of mine had an ear surgery, and instead of saying that it sounds quite serious I told him how awesome that is. Didn’t learn that 厉害 is only for positive things.

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