As the plane started its descent my heart sank as we entered into a thick haze of cloud. I would not see the sun again for more than a week. Little did I know that that was the least of my worries. Language was also to disappear from my vision and for the next month I was to discover life as if without ears or mouth. Lost in a thick cloud of non-comprehension and non-verbal communication, it was down to my observation, imagination and creativity to navigate and discover the new world I had found myself in.
The year was 1999. Summer. Just two weeks prior, my long-awaited and long-planned for trip to Africa had fallen through. With two months holiday ahead of me and nowhere to go, a friend of a friend suggested I go to China. They had a spare room in the capital, it was mine if I wanted it. Having no idea what awaited me, I decided to say yes.
As far as I could see were people. A sea of people. And as busy as it was, everyone kept calmly moving forward like one large gentle wave. It was mesmerising.
Going through customs I quickly asked my friend how to say hello in the local language and also how to count to ten. While this, along with the soon acquired expressions 不要 (no, I don’t want it), 太贵 (that’s too expensive) and 好吃吗？(does it taste good?) somehow helped me to negotiate my way around town, being able to bargain also had its limits. I could interact on a business level, but not on a personal level.
The obvious solution, you may probably be thinking, would be to speak to people in English, after all, so many people in China all study the language. But this wasn’t enough for me. Here I was in a country where at the time I was one of few foreigners. Internet was still in its early days (I actually opened my first email account in an internet café in Beijing) and travel was at a fraction of what it is today. I was surrounded by this immensely rich culture and masses of people like I had never experienced before.
I will always remember going to one of the main train stations to catch a train north. First, the station was huge, unlike any I had seen in London, New York or Paris. Second, it was full of people. I mean full of people. As far as I could see were people. A sea of people. And as busy as it was, everyone kept calmly moving forward like one large gentle wave. It was mesmerising.
I wanted to discover more and I knew the only way I could really do that would be to learn their language.
The train was equally full. But from observation I could see no complaining. Everyone either squeezed onto a seat or pulled out a trusted piece of newspaper from their back pocket, slowly unfolded it and carefully placed it on the ground for them to sit on. Then followed the bags of sunflower seeds that occupied most of the journey, shelling them and extracting the seed with a single delicate crack between the front teeth, no need for fingers or anything else.
I could tell that each person had their story, hidden in the deep wrinkles, the hardened hands and even the lean muscular physiques. I wanted to discover more and I knew the only way I could really do that would be to learn their language.
I determined that as soon as I returned to France I would start learning Chinese.
And I would give myself a year to do so.
I learnt Chinese in just one year and I’m here to share the secrets behind my success. Passionate about everything learning, I’ve been working in language training, conception and design for more than 15 years, on a corporate, individual and academic level. For more information or to set up a meeting, contact me directly through LinkedIn.