The Emperor’s New Clothes: Learning Chinese With Wechat

August 17, 2015 By Tamara Treichel

Learning a language is no small miracle and no small feat.

There is an elderly Chinese lady who sells items on a blanket in my Beijing neighborhood at night, knickknacks like fake peanuts, a toothpick holder shaped like a cigarette, windup toys and underwear. She speaks no English, lives in a hutong house, is retired and has one son. “If you couldn’t speak some Chinese, there would be no communication between us,” she said while I was browsing her goods.

She was right! I wouldn’t be able to know anything about her if I spoke no Chinese. Language brings people together and draws an invisible yet iron curtain between us. It builds bridges and burns them. It creates opportunities and destroys them as well.

My journey to learn Chinese is a continuous one. It is a winding road fraught with steep hills which often finds me pausing, gasping for breath. “Is there no shortcut?” I once asked a Chinese co-worker. “There is no easy way to learn Chinese,” he replied as he was unpacking his sneakers, ready to leave work and head to the gym.

I admit my journey might have been smoother if I had studied the language systematically at a university perhaps, yet my study of the language was a lot more organic — “patchwork Chinese,” as I call it. I only started studying it around the time I came to Beijing in 2009.  My study efforts involved two basic courses at a language-learning institute for professionals who wanted to learn foreign languages on the fly while investing as little time as possible as well as two private tutors and a handful of language exchange partners. Not to mention some stop-and-go self-study involving books, CDs and many trial-and-error interactions with the Chinese people which might have stripped me of my self-confidence if I hadn’t had a die-hard attitude.

One of my conventional study tools. It is my "Chinese dream" to finish this book

One of my conventional study tools. It is my “Chinese dream” to finish this book

There are so many aspects to language learning, so many defeats and triumphs. And so many methods to learn. Continue reading