My own journey of learning Mandarin Chinese is perhaps not the most usual one. My parents lived in Beijing in the 1980’s for a few years when my mother was working at the Finnish Embassy there. During their last year in the Northern Capital, my mom started expecting me, therefore I can say I was in China even before I was born!
My parents didn’t continue the diplomatic adventure, instead returned Finland to their hometown. I was born and lived in Finland for the first 21 years of my life.
My earliest memory of being interested in China and in Chinese culture is from 5th grade when I was making a presentation about China at school. We had Chinese items at home and especially my father enjoyed watching Chinese documentaries and movies on TV. Later in middle school I remember finding my parents old phrasebook of Chinese and carrying it with me.
During high school I got my first Chinese textbook and participated in two weeks course full of Chinese language and taiji. When I entered university I took Chinese language lessons once or twice a week, reaching an elementary level before moving to China in early 2010.
What personally motivated me to learn Chinese is something I can’t fully explain in words. I can only say, I was made in China so that’s why!
In his book motivation researcher Dörnyei talks about Directed Motivational Currents that refer to a “powerful drive which unfolds over time and impacts its participants in a significant way.” He continues to explain that “all DMCs follow the same pattern: a clearly visualized goal combined with a concrete pathway of motivate action brings a new lease of life and burst of passion to a situation.” (Dörnyei, 2021) Personally I feel I have had several of these during my time of learning Chinese, especially when doing my Bachelor and Master’s Degrees. Now I feel that new wave of passion and motivation since I decided to pursue a PhD in Education.
Now fast forwarding to end of 2021, I have been a Chinese teacher since 2014 and I have taught over a hundred students these past eight years. I have seen students both succeed and fail in learning Chinese, which makes me wonder what makes a successful learner of Chinese language?
Some of my students that have especially strong motivation they have sustained for years, find joy in the process of learning Chinese. They find it a fascinating language to learn and feel comfortable living here in China, many of them truly want to communicate with the native speakers. They can persist in their studied even if there are long holiday breaks or even if it feels difficult at times. They just keep going at least as long as they will stay in China.
Another group of students who show a strong motivation to learn are those who think “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” and consider it a responsibility to learn the language of their new home. They don’t want to stay in the expat bubble, instead they want to communicate with locals in Chinese and with those locals who don’t necessarily speak foreign languages. For this group also it’s not a question of if, but a question of how.
This second group does differ from the first group in one way, according to my observations as a teacher, their motivation levels can fluctuate. Sometimes they feel everything is going smoothly and have that boost of energy, sometimes it just feels so hard and things go slower. As a teacher my job is to estimate when the curve goes down so I can help my students to remember why they want to learn Chinese and show them how fun and interesting it can be.
These two groups have a strong motivation to learn the language and I feel there is a lot we can learn from them that we can use to help other students. Some common nominators I can see are interest towards the language it self, enjoys living in China, plan to live in China relatively long time (years, not months), wants to communicate with locals in their language, sees their new environment and surroundings in a positive light.
But what truly makes one sustain motivation over time when it comes to learning Chinese? How can we help students who struggle with motivation? That is a question I hope to answer (at least partly) during the next six years or so.
My PhD studies
Last time I mentioned that I plan to apply to a PhD program in a Finnish university next Spring. At the moment I’m writing the first draft of my research plan so I can convince my possible supervisors that my research topic is relevant and I happen to be the right person to study this topic.
As I did my degrees here in China, there are certain things about doing research that I have to learn now in order to be able to successfully start and finish my research. But when it comes to the passion of researching study motivation and learners of Chinese language, that I truly feel is my mission in life!
If I think what is the storyline of my life and to what projects I have dedicated most of my life so far doing, they certainly relate to learning and teaching Chinese language. I’ve made my hobby my major, then my career, now I hope to take it to the next level and through this research find ways to serve my students better.
Of course I could improve my teaching and motivate my students without an official higher degree, but at this point in my life, I feel this is what I need. I’m ready to jump in to the next wave of motivational current and see where it takes me.
Looking forward to sharing ideas with other students, teachers or researchers of Chinese language and SLA motivation.