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Discovering Chinese II. How to keep up a language when you’re no longer in the country

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

Jonathan is an Intermediate level Chinese learner and started his Unconventional Chinese lessons in April, 2020. In the 'Discovering Chinese' blog series, he will share his language learning journey and life experiences in Beijing and beyond.

I am often asked what I think of my time in Beijing. I generally reply that

Beijing is a polluted, noisy, crowded, crazy, infuriating city, and I absolutely loved it!

It is a place of such contrasts and such opportunities, and particularly back in 2005 it was a place of the most amazing range of people starting up new businesses, new bars, new art galleries, new restaurants. It was safe, you could travel around it cheaply, even if it sometimes meant being stuck in traffic for a long time, and there was always something noteworthy to discover. It was rough and ready. It was crowded, but it felt like a place full of life. When the two years of my position were up, Beijing was a really hard place to say goodbye to, and I have been back many times since, but more on that, and my experiences there later.

(798 in Beijing is an area taken over by artists in the early 2000s, and at the time was filled with the most incredible studios)

(You could have the most incredible range of food experiences imaginable. These are hand-pulled noodles)

(Teaching theoretical physics to high school students during a trip back to Beijing)

I had landed a new position in Spain for three years, again working as a researcher in the university of Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia in the North West of the country, an area known for green rolling hills, rain, and the most amazing octopus (Pulpo Gallego) on Earth. Although I was now learning Spanish, I really wanted to keep up my Chinese, and so through I met a Chinese woman who would become a great friend over the years. As I picked up the local language, we would converse in a strange combination of Spanish (in which she was fluent) and Chinese, but it meant that my Chinese wasn’t dying, although it wasn’t really growing much at the time either.

(I met a Chinese woman who would become a great friend over the years)

I am often asked if it was hard moving to Beijing, but in fact it wasn’t, as I knew it would be full of challenges and differences. The hardest move I ever made was from Beijing, population some 16 million at the time, and Santiago de Compostela, a sleepy cathedral/university city with 75,000. I loved my three years there, but I still longed for many things in Beijing.

(Santiago de Compostela is a beautiful little Spanish city, famed for its Pilgrim trail which is a walk from France to the historical cathedral)

Towards the end of my time in China I had also started hosting Couchsurfers (like airbnb, but free, and mostly for independent travellers). I continued this in Spain, becoming the most active Couchsurfer in the country at one point, and always enjoyed hosting Chinese Couchsurfers with whom I could keep up my speaking skills, and always discover information about new and interesting parts of the country that I hadn’t had a chance to visit. I also went back there just about every year to go and explore some new area: Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu but always going back to Beijing to discover how it had changed.

I have to admit that my Chinese didn’t grow much in the three years in Spain, as getting fluent at Spanish became a priority, but I did keep practicing, and it probably became more comfortable, even if I wasn’t learning a lot of new vocabulary, at least at the beginning.

Each time I would go back to China, I would have an intense couple of weeks of speaking and it would quickly come back to me.

I had very memorable trips, like the one to Ping Liang, in Gansu province, to go and see a solar eclipse. After a couple of days of train rides, I found myself atop a mountain by a Daoist monastery, explaining to confused Chinese hikers why I was up there, and what they should expect with the impending eclipse. While my maths may be pretty good, it turns out that my common sense isn’t, and the information that I had about the eclipse was not local time, but Universal time, and I was about 7 hours too early. In the end I watched the eclipse under cloudy skies from the train station just before my return train was about to leave. I’ll write details of some other memorable trips another time.

(Kids I met by the station after my ill-fated trip up a mountain to see an eclipse)

Around the end of my time in Spain I discovered a new program called Anki, which uses spaced repetition learning, a way to efficiently space flashcards so that you have to see them a relatively small number of times to really get them firmly into long-term memory. Anki quickly became an invaluable tool for learning characters and I would use it daily. While it wasn’t getting me speaking, it was the single most useful tool for increasing my vocabulary, and I see it still today. This, combined with chatting with my friend in Chinese, and trips back as often as I could, meant that again my level was increasing slowly but surely.

Next, from Spain to Germany, and the benefits of creating a community around you.

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