I began studying Chinese when I was thirteen years old. At the time, I didn’t think it would lead to my studying in China, but it was definitely a factor in my choosing to come here. After studying the language through high school and then university, I found that I still only had a rudimentary grasp of the language. Now, had I put more effort into studying, I definitely could have reached a higher level of proficiency, however a large part of the problem was related (I feel) to two issues: 1) specialist language study in Australian universities is not nearly intensive enough; and 2)without having the proper language environment, fluency is very hard to attain.
When I first came to China, I had plans to improve my Chinese while teaching English, but I abandoned this idea after one year. My reason for this was simple: when teaching English, the classroom environment is an English-language environment. Between this, and the fact that the nature of English teaching means that you’re surrounded by students and colleagues who can all speak English (meaning that there’s less incentive to study the local language), I found that during my first year in China, my Chinese speaking skills improved the most dramatically when I went on holiday and talked to people on the train. I would recommend that anyone who wishes to teach English overseas as a way to expose themselves to a foreign language keep this in mind. I’m not saying that my Chinese didn’t improve during this time, but at the same time, it didn’t improve as quickly as I would have liked.
Disappointed with my lack of progress, I decided that full-time study was the most efficient way to improve my Chinese. I didn’t, however, want to find myself in the situation where Chinese language was my only skill. I had done one year of teaching already and found that I didn’t enjoy it, and I was pretty rotten at it anyway. I wanted to have another skill besides languages, and I didn’t want to go back to university in Australia and find the progress that I’d already made in Chinese slip away. One option was to study a different degree in Australia, and take private Chinese lessons outside of university, but there was another option that ultimately was far more affordable: study at university in China.
By studying engineering in China, I could gain engineering skills (as my university is one of the top three in China, I haven’t had to make that much compromise when it comes to the quality of my education), while at the same time improving my Chinese language skills. And unlike Chinese-language majors, I would also be receiving a very solid dose of technical vocabulary, as well as the technical knowledge to (should I desire) translate Chinese technical documents into English. Meanwhile, I’m immersed in Chinese culture, and learning about China in ways I simply would not have been able to had I studied in Australia.
Now, there are many Chinese students who, having travelled to English speaking countries to study, have a similar skill set – a combination of bilingualism and engineering knowledge – however there are some subtle differences. For one, my native English speaking abilities will leave me more qualified to translate documents from Chinese to English, should I desire; and as a Westerner acclimatised to Chinese culture, I have different insights into the cultural differences between China and the West than the Chinese students acclimatised to Western culture. In a world in which China is fast becoming a dominant global power, I expect these skills to become immensely valuable by the time I graduate.