Olivia Seaton-Hill

The new year is a time for new beginnings, fresh starts, challenges, and resolutions. It's a time of positive change. After over 20 years of giving it a miss, this year I decided to make the most of the yearly opportunity to better myself. No, I didn't resolve. Does anybody actually stick to their resolution, or do we all end up feeling bad about ourselves in mid-January because we couldn't see it through? Instead, I set myself a challenge. Inspired by the 30-Day Fitness Challenges (30-day abs/squat/plank etc. challenge), I set myself a 30-Day Mandarin Challenge!

Over Christmas, I sat down and wrote down a list of Mandarin phrases that I thought would be useful and aimed to learn by the end of January. Planning done, all I now had to do was learn one of these phrases every day. This is, it turns out, easier said than done. My phrases ranged from “How much is it?” to “Where is the bathroom?” to “I don't understand!”

The first week or so wasn't too bad. However, I quickly realised that I was lacking a lot of the basics, such as numbers. It's no good asking “How much?” if you can't understand the reply. You would think learning to count to ten would be super easy, right? Wrong. Not only are the various tones in Mandarin difficult to master the hand gestures to accompany numbers are entirely different from those in the Western world. It probably took me the best part of a week to get those properly down.

Whilst I tried to stick to my planned phrases, it became apparent that this was maybe not the best approach. Sometimes I learned words or phrases organically out in the real world such as “là” which means spicy and “bù là” which means not spicy. Other days I did not happen upon new words. On these days I would consult my list and make the effort to learn something.

During the course of the month, I spoke to several friends about my challenge. Some of them even resolved to try and join in too. One of my friends recommended downloading the HelloChinese app to help me with grammar and building my vocabulary. The app is similar to Duolingo but also includes audio of native Chinese speakers which I think is a really cool feature. I began to use the app every day. Some days I'd have lots of time to spend learning, other days I'd just do a quick review. The nice thing is that there are many options to choose from.

The overall result of my 30-day Mandarin Challenge? Well, I'm far from fluent. Maybe about 60%-70% of the phrases I taught myself have stayed in my brain. However, I can definitely speak a lot more Mandarin than I could in December! Combining phrases with the app has also allowed me to start noticing patterns in the language. From my limited experience, so far, I view Mandarin to be a bit like building blocks. The language is broken into chunks which you can rearrange in order to convey your meaning. English, on the other hand, is like putty. English can be moulded, stretched and jumbled up in all sorts of ways – just look at how we conjugate verbs! In this sense, my challenge has given me a little more insight into my students. I can now understand why they make some of the same errors over and over. Often, they will use “he” and “she” interchangeably because in Mandarin there is only one word: tā.

If you're considering learning Mandarin, I would highly encourage you to just do it! Set yourself a challenge, and set yourself goals. It may take a while to notice your progress but remember that slow and steady wins the race. And, if you don't try, you'll never know just how good you could be. I did also join a gym at the start of the year in a bid to better myself further. I plan to keep building my muscles and my Mandarin as the year continues.

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