Discovering Chinese during lockdown: BCI student Kim McGreal

Kim McGreal’s fascination with languages and love of words led her down a Mandarin-learning rabbit hole after a Netflix TV series got her hooked on the language and what it revealed about Chinese culture.

Internal Communications Manager Kim started learning Mandarin during the pandemic. She is now taking the BCI Level 3 Evening Course and working towards her first HSK exam.

In this post Kim explains why she fell in love with learning Chinese, shares the resources she has found helpful, and describes the positive outcomes that are keeping her moving forward on this language journey.

Over to Kim…

A fascination with languages

I’ve always been fascinated by languages, but I’ve never been any good at learning them. I remember sitting in my French lessons in school and making up stories about two fish who fell in love (I wrote it in French at least!) rather than paying attention to what I was being taught. My teacher wasn’t amused. 

But one of my A Levels was in English Language, and that was where my fascination for language started. I love learning the etymology of phrases and finding out how some of our most common idioms began life, and discovering how everyday words we take for granted originated from other languages. Over the last few years, I’ve started learning more languages than I can remember. They include Latin, Russian, Swedish, Arabic, Hebrew, Portuguese and probably several others. None of them stuck 

Discovering Chinese during lockdown

And then came lockdown. While I was lucky enough to still be able to work from home, on evenings and weekends I found myself bored and flicking through Netflix for something to watch. That’s how I found The Untamed. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a Chinese fantasy drama filled with complex relationships, awesome fight scenes and beautiful sets. 

But by the time I got about halfway through the show, I realised that in some cases, the words being spoken – in Mandarin Chinese – by the characters didn’t match the words being said in the English translations. For instance, a character was being called “shijie” instead of by her name. I went onlinedid a little bit of research and promptly fell into a rabbit hole I’ve been in for almost a year now. 

Language as a window into Chinese culture

Shijie, which I learned can be translated as ‘martial sister’, introduced me to the complexities of Chinese relationships and the naming conventions associated with them. So many different words for ‘aunt’, ‘uncle’ and ‘grandfather’! Honourifics that changed depending on hierarchies and familial positions! Characters with more than one name! 

This is exactly the type of thing that appeals to me about language. I was fascinated by the way the language is so intertwined with the culture, and how poetic and beautiful it iseven with thsometimes-dubious translations. I decided I didn’t want to rely on someone else’s translations – I wanted to be able to understand the source material, even if it was going to take me a long while before I got to that point. 

First steps learning Mandarin Chinese

At the beginning of April, I opened up the Duolingo language app and started my Mandarin Chinese learning journey. The app helped me learn the basics, but after a few months, I realised that it wasn’t teaching in the right way for me. I was learning phrases parrot fashion, without actually understanding the meaning of the words behind them.  

I use two apps now; Hello Chinese and Ninchanese. The former teaches me the literal translations of words, as well as how they’re actually used. It also has a section that teaches how those words are used in real life settings, rather than just as a learning exercise. The latter is more gamified, with a fun little storyline to go through as you work your way through the lessons. The biggest advantage to this app is that you aren’t given multiple choice answers, which simultaneously makes it far tougher than the other apps, but also means that once I’ve learned the words, they stick better. 

I’ve also picked up some podcasts. My favourite is the Mandarin Slang Guide, which explains some of the words that definitely aren’t in any of my text books. So far I’ve picked up social media slang, learned how to gossip, and how to talk about LGBT+ issues, as well as learning a lot of the more cultural aspects of language. It’s absolutely fascinating and I always look forward to the new episodes. 

And, of course, I’m watching more Chinese dramas, especially those where I can have both the English and the Chinese subtitles on at the same time. I can offer plenty of recommendations for shows if anyone is interested! 

Why I signed up for Chinese lessons

In October last year, I realised there was one aspect of the language I was still struggling with – speaking Mandarin out loud. I mean, I was doing it, but there was nobody to tell me if I was doing it correctly or not. I searched around locally for any online courses and discovered the Business Confucius Institute at the University of Leeds. I signed up without hesitation. 

Best decision ever. 

While speaking out loud in front of other people, even in English, is something that I generally hate doing, knowing that the other students were all in the same boat as me made it a little easier. It would have been nice to have the lessons in person, but Zoom worked for what we needed to do. The tutor was great, complimenting us every time we spoke, even when we struggled with the unfamiliar sounds. And having someone there to correct my pronunciation with me until I got it right was exactly what I needed.  

The day I got my certificate from the BCI, I was so proud of myself.

It may have only been aintroductory level course, but it was proof of how far I’ve come with my learning. Mandarin isn’t something I’m going to learn overnight, but I can feel myself improve almost every day.  

My study habits and goals

It’s been tough some days. I work full time, so evenings and weekends are still the only time I have to study. But I make sure I do something every single day, even if it’s just 10 minutes refresher on one of my apps. I’ve done this every day for more than 300 days so far, without missing a single day. And no, I don’t count watching dramas as my daily practice! 

My plan this year is to take the first level HSK test. The HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) test is China’s only official test of Chinese language proficiency for non-native speakers. I’m confident I know all the vocabulary, but I’m just nervous about the listening exercises.  

The benefits of learning Mandarin Chinese

Unlike a lot of learners, I’m not learning Mandarin to help with work, or even for travelling, although I would like to visit China one day.

For me, learning Mandarin has helped my mental health.

It’s kept my mind active, even on days when I’m so exhausted I just want to sleep, and it’s introduced me to so much new information (which is something I thrive on). I’m learning about history and religion and mythology, as well as e-sports and 1930s detectives and criminal psychology.

I’ve found something to be passionate about. 

I’m not one to make empty promises to myself, or new year’s resolutions, but I really do intend to stick with this particular language journey. I think my French teacher would have approved. 

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.