Gary Chambers: an 8-week investment to connect with students

Gary Chambers runs the TESOL Studies MA course at the University of Leeds; a course populated almost entirely by Chinese students. As an investment in his working relationship with them, Gary enrolled on a beginner Mandarin course to learn some words and phrases in their native language. 

Gary’s story is an example of how a short commitment over a few weeks can lead to the accomplishment of meaningful goals. We hope this will encourage you that a little Mandarin really can go a long way!

Do you need to aim for fluency in Mandarin?

With a busy career and family life, and no plans to travel to China, Gary had a very clear reason for learning Mandarin. All he wanted was to be able to say hello and have basic conversations with his Chinese students.

Completing a BCI Evening course was a manageable commitment to make in order to achieve this, and with just a few hours a week hachieved what he was hoping for. 

Week by week we were ticking those boxes and releasing the language that I needed.

Getting used to a new language

Gary studied Latin, German, French and Spanish at school, had been to Germany for his year abroad, and had also learnt Swedish. On top of that, his job involves training language teachers. With his flair for languages and positive attitude, it’s no surprise that Gary initially thought learning Mandarin would be a piece of cake. 

He quickly realised that Mandarin is very different to other languages. He found it difficult to get used to the radicals, the characters and the word order. 

But Gary’s previous experience, as well as his optimistic and cheerful nature, allowed him to approach learning Mandarin with positivity and resilience.

As someone with lots of experience as a language teacher, Gary had plenty of techniques at his disposal. However, the strategies he mentions are all very simple. If you aren’t used to learning a language as a beginner you might find some of these ideas useful to try:

  • Designate a book for writing out words and phrases to learn. In a reference to his school days Gary jokingly describes this as writing it out ‘in neat’.
  • Cover up the English word and test yourself on the Chinese (and vice-versa). Once you are happy that you know the words on one page, move on to the next.
  • When you have trouble with certain words, write them out repeatedly (Gary might do this 5 or 6 times) to help commit them to memory.
  • Stick words on post-it notes around the house. Gary didn’t actually do this one – he thought his wife might object!
  • Listen to examples to make sure you remember the correct pronunciation. Gary used the CD that came with the textbook for this.

Support and encouragement  

Gary cheerfully admits that the Chinese course wasn’t a breeze. But when he logged on after a long day at work, sometimes feeling tired or hungry, he was encouraged by the positive energy from his teacher. Her jolly, enthusiastic and encouraging attitude reminded him that this endeavour was worth it and his time and effort was valued.   

I always felt, having read Michelle’s comments, ‘I can do this’

On days when he had worked hard on homework, he was reassured by Michelle’s quick and positive feedback that enabled him to focus on how he could fix his mistakes and helped him to feel ready and confident for his next lesson. Her support affirmed Gary’s faith in his ability to succeed.  

Investing time into Mandarin

Anything that’s worth doing is going to be hard work.

Gary kept his end goal in mind to sustain his effort throughout the course. He considered each class as a building block, adding new content to his bank of knowledge, and gradually built confidence in his abilities.  

As well as the evening lessons during the week, a large chunk of Gary’s Saturday afternoons became time to learn characters and do homework. Gary recognised that this course was an investment into learning something worth learning, so each hour he spent on studying was worthwhile. 

There was almost always one word that just would not stick in my head – but when I got to the next class, it would come back!

He tried to review the lessons slides and write key words out ‘in neat’ during a gap in his schedule on Friday. Each week he dedicated time on Saturday to studying the material, at which point he might still be struggling a bit with characters, word order or memorising longer phrases. After briefly reviewing this again on Sunday and Monday Gary found that everything would fall into place – and words he couldn’t remember at all on Saturday would often mysteriously come back to him in Tuesday’s lesson!

This hard work, a total of 2-3 hours between lessons each week, meant that he felt more confident going into the next lesson and ultimately helped him get the most out of the short course. 

Overcoming nerves

Even people like Gary, with tons of language experience and know-how, face the challenges of applying their knowledge in the real world. Gary confesses that despite having regular meetings on Teams with his new Chinese students, he hasn’t yet had the courage to try using his Mandarin in those conversations.

He didn’t have this shyness when he was a younger language-learner, and knows exactly what he would probably say to his daughters in the same situation:

They’ll be really pleased that you made the attempt! Come on, be brave!

Gary remains optimistic and knows that once he has got the ball rolling, both he and his students will reap the rewards. Characterising the worry of making mistakes or being embarrassed as ‘the demons in your head’, he tries to banish them by telling himself:

Even if you got it completely wrong they’d just laugh and probably admire you for having the guts to do it – there is no downside.

As Gary very well knows through his personal and professional experience, ‘it’s the making of the mistakes that helps you learn’.

An investment in his relationship with his students

Learning Mandarin is an investment

Investing a few hours a week for eight short weeks was enough for Gary’s initial Mandarin Aspirations to be fulfilled.

With this mission accomplished, his time and focus will now turn back to his job and his family. He considers this eight-week effort a worthwhile investment in his relationship with students on his course, and looks forward to using some Mandarin words and phrases with them.

Further reading

The Mandarin Aspirations Project

We aim to encourage and celebrate the learning of Chinese by sharing the motivations (why study Chinese), study experiences (challenges and rewards) and study outcomes (employability, confidence and intercultural skills) of Chinese language learners. We hope that these Mandarin Aspirations stories will encourage those of you already studying Chinese, and inspire new learners to join a growing and supportive community of Chinese language enthusiasts in the UK.