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A Chinese Student Losing His Ability to Speak Chinese

Zeshi Wang ’20, Guest Writer

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After a long challenging semester at Dickinson, I was finally able to go home for the winter break. In the taxi, I couldn’t hide my excitement of seeing my family and tasting my mom’s cooking. The ride was quite fun as I had an interesting conversation with the taxi driver, sharing some funny stories from America while catching up with some local news. However, unexpectedly, the taxi driver asked me while I was taking out the money: “you are not Korean are you?” My heart almost stopped beating because I thought he was joking. I laughed “no, of course not, but why.” He then plunged into contemplation: “well, you kind of sound like a foreigner”. He left me speechless. Having spent my past four years in America, from high school to college, I could humbly say that I could speak and write in English at a decent level, but I never thought of how it affected my Chinese, my native language.

I reflected on my experience. Sadly, I became anxious after discovering the fact that I’ve been gradually losing the ability to properly speak mandarin- my native language. This is not the first time I had such anxiety, but it was the first time I realized how serious it was.

I call my parents on a regular basis. The other night, I was calling my dad to inquire some legal issues about a case of mock trial. I had to explain the whole case, my role and asked him about his opinions. However, shockingly, I found it extremely difficult to clearly express my thoughts in proper Chinese. Instead, I had to “talk around” certain terms, meaning I didn’t know the specific Chinese translation of the English terms so I had to explain the meanings of them. For example, instead of telling him the exact term “qi su,” which means prosecution, I had to explain to him my interpretation of prosecution in lengthy sentences. Unfortunately, after all of these “efforts” I put in to explanation, he still confused about everything I had told him, demanding me to be more concise. In addition, I have realized that for many times when I wanted to post something on my Chinese social media “Wechat”, whether it was about my daily mood, some reflection on life or simply activities I do at school, I had to use my dictionary constantly to find the exact Chinese expressions because I only knew their English counterparts. My Chinese language skills have degenerated seriously. I felt so shameful and frustrated because my language represents my heritage and it is something I feel highly proud of. Not only so, it gives me unique cultural identity. However, I think I may be losing it.

The Chinese language is the crystallization of the splendid culture developed continuously for over 5,000 years. The use of the language involves many profound cultures and rhetorics in different contexts.  That’s being said, in different contexts, particular expressions are used even they’re all translated the same in English. If someone tries to translate an artistic Chinese sentence into English, it’ll be lengthy and lose the romantic charm. However, thinking to myself, I’m at a stage where I cannot write or speak perfect or professional English, nor do I attain the level of Chinese before I came to America. For example, if my friends take a photo of spring view somewhere in China, they usually would post it on Chinese social media with a poetic sentence from an ancient poem to resonate with the beauty of spring. On the contrary, if it was me at this point, I could hardly think of any poems I was told to memorize in my elementary schools’ Chinese classes but simply post the picture with a plain text: “look how beautiful spring is here at my school.

The more I reflected, the more examples I could find where I knew exactly the English expressions but had no idea of their Chinese counterparts. I have to attribute the loss of my language skills to the extensive English environment around me. In my high school in Cleveland, I was the only Chinese exchange student where I didn’t have to speak a single Chinese sentence for months. Thanks to this experience, my English skills improved tremendously. I’m still grateful for this experience. I always thought that it is so important for me to immerse myself in the environment, where I not only can make lots of American and international friends, improve my language skills, but truly reflect on the differences between American and Chinese culture. As for Chinese, I thought it easy to reinforce it when I’m home. However, I think it is also so important to find a balance between using English and Chinese in order to preserve the authenticity of my Chinese skills. The language of Chinese is so important to me and it carries lots of my pride and emotions. I cannot lose it. Finally, to reinforce my Chinese language, I started to read some Chinese books I brought from home on a regular basis and spent more time with my Chinese friends. I hope next time I go home, I will not be mistaken for a foreigner.

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A Chinese Student Losing His Ability to Speak Chinese