‘Si se puede’ is a series (God willing) in which I
grill talk to people who have successfully learned a second language in their 20’s, 30’s or beyond, to find out how they did it. I need proof that it’s never too late to learn a foreign language!
First up is my colleague, Jordan Helton, a whip-smart, wry and upbeat journalist from a tiny town in Oklahoma (1,800 people!). After graduating from college in Illinois, she moved to China and spent the next eleven months teaching English to K-12 students in Hangzhou, an hour and a half outside Shanghai.
I knew that I wanted to go abroad right after school. I had never been to a foreign country, never even been to Canada. I wanted to work in some international aid field so I thought that would be important. I took three years of Russian in college, but I didn’t really want to go to Russia. So I started looking for ESL teacher jobs. If you have ever looked for a job as an English teacher abroad – it’s so easy to be hired in China. There are hundreds of job openings to teach English to kids.
What was your comfort level with Chinese when you first got there?
I did not speak a word of Chinese.
How did you feel about that? Were you scared?
I just assumed everything would work out. Learning languages is one of my favorite things to do, just period. It makes my brain hurt in a good way. Learning languages is really difficult for me, but it’s a type of mental exercise that I don’t necessarily get in other parts of my day.
Did you set a goal of how much or how quickly you wanted to learn?
It was such a daunting task when I first got there. I knew that I wanted to speak the language but my first goal was just to be able to feel like I could survive on my own – that I could get to my house, if I got lost I could ask for directions; that I could go to the cafe and order a coffee. I need to count to ten. I need to be able to buy something at the store and understand the amount that he’s telling me to pay. And then once I became comfortable with that it was wanting to be able to have a conversation on a particular topic. And then it was, Christmas is coming up, I want to be able to discuss Christmas with the kids that I teach. So I think that I never had a long-term goal; I broke it up into short goals that I could meet and feel happy and accomplished about.
So what was your process for learning the language?
As soon as I got there I started looking for a private language teacher. With Chinese you’re not just learning one language; you’re learning two different languages. You’re learning spoken and hearing and you’re also learning how to recognize on sight an image and know what that stands for. And so, when I first got there, learning characters and reading was extremely difficult and I really didn’t get into characters until about three months in. So I started out, I met with my private teacher twice a week for two hours each time. For the first three months we just focused on speaking and listening. For the first half of the lesson, we would go over textbook work, and then the second hour we would try to have a conversation, as much as we could. And then after three months I finished one textbook and I got to level two, and that was all in characters. I tried to learn ten new characters a week. I was living with someone at the time who was also learning Mandarin with the same teacher, so we would study together for a half hour every day.
And I had a lot of Chinese friends. My Chinese teacher was only a year older than I was and we’d often hang out and try to speak Mandarin as much as possible. I was really good friends with the teaching assistants at our school who were Chinese students studying English, so I spoke Chinese with them as much as possible, too.
Did you have an “a-ha moment” when you realized you had gotten over the hump and could speak the language?
I don’t know if this was a turning point but it was definitely something I took a lot of pride in personally because it was the first time I really had a long conversation about a complex topic that was also a joking interaction where I understand the humor. I was taking a cab to the train station and just having this amazing conversation with the cab driver. The conversation turned to politics and he was like, “What do you think of Obama?” We were having this back and forth, and then the cab driver was like, “Oh, I hate Obama. He’s not a good president. A good president, that’s Richard Nixon.” And I was trying to explain to him, “In the U.S., he doesn’t have the greatest reputation, actually.” That was probably five months in. Whereas five months before I couldn’t even say hello. But it was just being immersed in the culture and taking the time to study every day, having to use the language every day. It wasn’t a choice for me; I had to use it.
[That’s Jordan in the blue coat, above.]
How was learning Chinese versus learning Russian?
Russian was the sort of language class that you had every day for an hour, five days a week. I took that for three years, with an hour of homework every night, trying to watch Russian language movies, having little tea times that our teachers set up to speak. But even after three years I felt that my proficiency then was still not as high as one year living in China hearing it every day and being forced to speak it every day. It’s hard to overstate how big of a difference being immersed in both the language and the culture makes versus a sterile academic environment.
Just for fun… what was the biggest language faux pas you made?
I would have the perfect example in Russian. Just based on where you put the accent in a word, like “ya pishu” means “I write.” “Ya pishu” means “I piss.” I’ve done that before. In China, nothing comes to mind. My Mandarin, horrible though I know it was, was always received with the most patience and just like, gleefulness, of the person, knowing that a foreigner was trying to learn. So I think that if I ever did make a big faux pas, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. Everyone who I interacted with was happy to listen to me just brutalize their language.
Now that you’re back in the States, how do you maintain the proficiency you’ve achieved?
Here in the U.S. I feel like I have to push myself to find those opportunities to keep working. A friend recommended Conversation Exchange, a website to find language exchange partners. It’s like online dating but for language learners. So I used to meet every Sunday with a language exchange partner. I actually had two, secretly – but I never told the other one that I had another person I was speaking Chinese with because I felt like I was cheating on them. You know in those sitcoms when people schedule a date right after a date and everything goes wrong and in the end it’s such a stressful experience? That’s how it was with me and my language partners. I tried really hard so that they never met each other. So I’d meet one at Union Square and then I’d travel up to Bryant Park to meet the other one. Four hours every Sunday.
Do you have any words of wisdom for other people trying to learn another language?
I think being passionate about the language that you choose is extremely important, otherwise you’ll just float away. Know why you’re learning the language before you start, to keep you committed.
Thanks, Jordan, for indulging me in this little exercise! Inspiring evidence that even the hardest of languages can be conquered when you are a fearless badass and put in the time and effort.