3 Lessons I Learned from Studying Chinese

I am a final year student at the School of Oriental and African Studies graduating this July with a BA Chinese (Modern and Classical) degree.

I grew up in a small town close to Florence with a Chinese mother and an Italian father. But I only began to study Chinese when I finished high school. I was 19 and hadn’t made up my mind about what to study at university. So, I decided to take a year off and went to China.

A couple of months after I finished my final exams, I was on a plane to China to study Chinese language at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. My experience there completely changed my view of China. I fell so in love with the local language and culture that I decided to pursue this interest at university.

West Lake, Hangzhou

For anyone who is thinking about taking Chinese studies at university, I can think of 3 reasons why the answer should be yes.

1) It helps you to understand centuries of Chinese culture

China boasts more than 5,000 years of history that underpin the culture and the way of life of the Chinese people.

Learning Chinese is the first step to fully understand the Chinese people and their millennial culture. The Chinese language contains words and expressions that reflect their traditions and values.

Take the character for home and family家 (pronounced jiā). It if formed by the roof radical 宀 (pronounced mián) and the character 豕 (pronounced shǐ) which means pig. But how can a pig under a roof contribute to a home or family? Interestingly, in ancient China families would keep their pigs (most likely the earliest domesticated animals) in their home; thus, having a pig under the roof indicated that this was a place where people lived.

This example demonstrates how language and culture are deeply intertwined. Learning Chinese opens up your door to one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

2) It benefits your brain

Studies have demonstrated that learning a foreign language can have cognitive benefits. It helps to build multitasking and decision-making skills, and it improves memory.

Learning Chinese is a further exercise for the brain. Unlike English, Chinese is a tonal language and its writing system is not based on an alphabet of 26 letters but on characters each of them holding a specific pronunciation and meaning. It is estimated that 3,000 characters are required to be able to read a newspaper.

Mastering thousands of characters can be daunting especially for people whose first language is alphabetic, but research suggests that it has noticeable benefits on the brain. Why? Because learning Chinese utilizes areas of the brain that other languages do not. Compared to many European speakers who use only the left temporal lobe, Chinese speakers use both.

Therefore, challenging your brain with all these characters may indeed have positive effects and makes you smarter.

3) You will make new friends

When I was in China, I noticed that speaking the local language made a great difference compared to using English. Although younger generations in urban areas usually can speak English, I realized that using Chinese made communication much easier (some people were even too shy to use their English language skills).

Speaking the local language means that you are putting in an extra effort to understand the culture and it impresses the person in front of you. I have found that Chinese people are very curious, especially when it comes to foreign cultures, and friendly, meaning that it is easy to make new friends. During my year in Hangzhou I met people whom I am still in contact with. New friends but also new connections.

So, don’t be afraid to speak Chinese outside of the classroom: it’s good practice (we learn from our mistakes) and it will be fun!

Now I would like to ask you: Have you started studying Chinese yet? What do you like about it? And, what are the biggest challenges you have encountered so far?

This article was written by our guest writer and intern Elena Yumin Paci.