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Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Heritage Learner Who’s Determined Not to Quit!


We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success… 

Meet Angela—a Electrical Engineering & Computer Science major whose determination to maintain and strengthen her heritage language skills, while not easy, has brought her closer to her roots.

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1. What is your background with Mandarin, your heritage language?

My parents are direct immigrants from Beijing, so I was actually taught Mandarin before I was exposed to English in school. Everyone else in my family is fluent in Chinese. Since my parents wanted to raise me bilingual, they had me do exercises at home (watching mainland news, reviewing textbooks, memorizing characters) throughout elementary and middle school and visit Beijing every year or two, which was a big help. During high school, I tended to prioritize academics, so I didn’t visit at all and ended up barely working on my Mandarin.

2. You wrote a piece for The Daily Californian called “Not Quite Bilingual”  in which you mention reaching a point when you felt as though you were no longer advancing in Mandarin and became frustrated.  Can you tell us about that moment and the change it sparked in you?

After high school started, I started staying at home less and spending more time in extracurriculars or with my friends. At that point, especially since I wasn’t around many other Chinese kids, I began seeing bilingualism as less and less valuable and eventually stopped putting in as much effort to improve or even maintain my language skills. Towards the end of high school, when all the big competitions and applications were done and I had more free time to spend with my family, I noticed that the disconnect caused by my poor Chinese made it a lot harder to communicate than before.  I felt like it was time to take notice and do something about it, which led to me writing the article.

I can survive a daily conversation in Chinese, but I don’t know anything too advanced, and every so often when I’m speaking it I feel that I can’t reach a word or phrase that I know in English. It’s pretty frustrating, and that’s definitely a big reason I want to get back to learning Mandarin. Other than that, Mandarin’s recently become a good language for job seekers to know since China is a rising market, and I obviously want to study harder to get closer to my family.

3. What would you tell a fellow heritage learner who might be in need of motivation to keep up his or her language skills? Any advice?

Even if knowing your heritage language doesn’t seem like a necessary skill at the moment, language preservation is an important long-term issue.

A single language can carry hundreds or thousands of years of culture and history which, once forgotten, are almost impossible to recover.

I think that knowing how to speak your family’s language ties you much more closely to your heritage, and it’s definitely worth your time!

4. What strategies are you currently using to strengthen your Mandarin skills?

I’m mainly working on forming a habit of talking to my parents in Mandarin instead of English and speaking up more in Chinese conversations (when we’re visiting family friends, video calling my grandparents, etc.).

As for other material, I used to study two pocket dictionaries to cover basic characters, then switched to the textbooks my school’s Chinese program uses. Now, since my current goal is to speak more fluently, I watch a lot more reality TV and game shows to practice colloquialisms and conversational language.

5. Could you share with us a funny or touching anecdote about a time when your language skills made an interaction possible?

In my junior year of high school, my friend and I ​were tabling at freshman orientation to advertise the school’s Academic Decathlon club. There were parents and incoming freshmen walking around everywhere buying food, learning about clubs, and seeing what they might be interested in.  For our part, we mainly just yelled at passersby to come check out our table.

One of the moms caught my eye over time—she was walking up and down the row and never really engaging with anyone. When I approached her to offer her a flyer, we struck up a conversation in Chinese. It turns out she hardly spoke English. After some small talk, I gave her the directions she needed, outlined the competition for her as best I could, and asked her if her son might be interested. She thanked me and signed him up, and, surprisingly enough, he ended up becoming a committed member.

Looking back on the situation, the fact that I knew Mandarin changed the whole course of the interaction.

BONUS QUESTION: Have you got a favorite word or expression in Mandarin?

​There isn’t a single word that sticks out to me, but I really like learning about the simple characters that originated from pictographs, like how 水 (shǔi = water) mimics the flowing shape of water, 山 (shān = mountain) has a mountain’s peaks, and 龟 (gūi = turtle) has the head, shell, and tail of a turtle.​

We all come to languages from a different and personal perspective. What motivates you to speak a language other than English—be it  a connection to family, the desire to travel, potential career opportunities, or all of the above?!  Tell us about it @LeadWLanguages on social media.