As I am conducting my Ph.D. research on Chinese language learning motivation, I am also looking back on my journey of learning the language. I believe that being an L2 speaker of Chinese myself, I can have a unique lens into learning, teaching, and researching Mandarin. I feel that with the cooperation of both native and non-native teachers and researchers, we can together paint a comprehensive picture of what it is like to learn Chinese.
My first memory of being interested in the Chinese language and culture is from primary school, when we had to do notebook presentations by designing a poster in our A4 notebooks complemented with text, photos, and interesting information about our chosen topic. Whenever I could, I chose to write something about China.
In middle school, I had my first contact with the language when I found my parents’ old Berlitz phrasebook for Chinese that they used in Beijing in the 1980s. I would sometimes take it to school with me and amuse my classmates by trying to read the phrases out loud. In high school, my father bought me the very first Chinese textbook that I would study on my own, but only for fun and not in a very serious manner. In the second year of high school, I attended a two-week course in Chinese and taiji, which was the first time I took actual lessons.
But it was not until university in 2008 that I started to take regular Chinese lessons once or twice a week and from where I can date back my ideas about my learning motivation.
Motivation when starting to learn Chinese (2008-2009, Finland, Chinese lessons twice a week)
I was a highly motivated student as I had always been interested in Chinese language and culture. I felt I had a unique bond with the language and it just felt like something I was supposed to do. I did a fair amount of self-study outside of our classes but was way too shy to practice my spoken Mandarin, even if I had an opportunity to do so.
During class, we used the materials created by the teacher, and even though I don’t remember many of the details, I do remember enjoying the learning a lot and I would handwrite tons of characters both for fun and for memorizing them. I would also listen to Chinese music and read up on Chinese culture in general.
I believe I had a high integrative motivation and wanted to learn Chinese because it would allow me to understand Chinese culture better and become a part of that community. I was also very interested in the language itself, not only using it as a tool.
When my university wasn’t able to provide Chinese lessons anymore due to an insufficient number of learners, I switched to the Open University to continue my studies. I wasn’t going to stop learning just because it became harder, which unfortunately happened to most of my classmates from the beginners’ course.
In early 2020 I then moved to China as an exchange student.
Motivation during study exchange in China (2010-2011, daily Chinese lessons)
For three semesters I was an exchange student at the University of Guangzhou and had Chinese lessons every day from Monday to Friday, approximately 4 hours per day. Besides lessons, I did homework and found ways to practice my Chinese out on the streets.
Nothing would stop me from learning Chinese anymore, but I remember that the teachers did have an impact on my learning. I felt we had a few inexperienced teachers who made the courses frustrating and affected my studies, but I would rather give feedback than stop learning altogether.
But there are other reasons why I don’t find the Chinese language so difficult. Firstly, I think Chinese is the most interesting language I know. It would have been cool to know Latin but I didn’t really have a good reason to learn it. Secondly, I need Chinese every day so I have great motivation to learn it. I didn’t want to become an Ancient history researcher so I didn’t have any use for Latin. I also forgot Swedish (studied 6 years) and German (studied 5 years) completely because I never used them.Blog post from November 2010
After reaching a level of Chinese where I could manage my most common daily life interactions, I also encountered the intermediate plateau where learning seemed to slow down and it felt harder to improve further. It made me question if experiencing these feelings in my language learning is normal or if I was just being a lazy student.
And here my laziness comes into the equation as well. Just living in China isn’t enough to improve my Chinese from now on. For the next three or four years I will be attending formal teaching, but that still isn’t enough. In my spare time and especially on my holidays (right now!) I have to remember to study. But how to study when I totally feel like my motivation flew out of the window?Blog post from January 2011
Motivation during undergraduate degree in China (2011-2013, studying full time)
In Autumn 2011 I was excited to start my undergraduate degree in the Chinese language with other foreign students. From the beginning, I set my goal to be an excellent student and to master Chinese. I was very satisfied with most of my courses which helped to stay motivated and work hard on my Chinese. In my blog post from November 2011, I mention several reasons for being happy with my studies: satisfaction with the course materials, the teacher, and the difficulty of the course.
Throughout my undergraduate studies, I kept a monthly list of goals set and goals achieved. These were the years that I spent the most time learning the Chinese language, as opposed to later learning about subject matters in Chinese.
In July 2012 after studying hard for a year, I encountered hardships in my learning and negative emotions towards my learning.
Some of my grades from the spring semester are out already and I went to the office to check them. I really shouldn’t have. I’ve done very very poorly! Some grades I just can’t understand how they are possible! I went from being at the top of my class (20 students in class) last year to being perhaps the worst (3 students in class).
I feel like that whole semester was for nothing, feel very humiliated that I got poor grades. I only saw grades from 5 courses, but I don’t really look forward to seeing the rest (4).Blog post from July 2012
I felt defeated after putting so much time and effort into learning and for a moment let those negative emotions affect my study motivation. I took a break during the Summer and relaxed with other things I enjoyed. Nevertheless, being so invested in learning Chinese, nothing could truly make me stop studying the language. That has perhaps been my greatest strength, having this connection with the language, that even though there have been times when I haven’t been actively studying, the language would still be a part of my life and career.
Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I was transitioning from learning the language to becoming a teacher. I had influential teachers and mentors in my life who inspired me and motivated me to pursue a career as a Chinese language teacher. I also looked up to other learners of Chinese as a foreign language who had achieved a high level in Chinese and were entering exciting careers due to their language skills.
Motivation during a graduate degree in China (2014-2016)
After my bachelor’s degree in Chinese language, I entered a master’s degree program in teaching Chinese as a second language. This was a program for local Chinese students where twenty foreign students joined in. I was no longer studying the language itself, instead learning about Chinese linguistics and pedagogy in Chinese.
During these years there were many factors outside of my studies that affected my learning and motivation. I got married in early 2014 and had a baby girl in late 2015. I attended many of my graduate courses while pregnant and finished my master’s thesis with a newborn in my hands. Besides creating obvious challenges to my studies, becoming a mother also taught me about planning my time better and being more productive with the time I had.
Throughout my years of learning Chinese, I had the advantage of being a full-time student and being expected to study hard no matter the motivational level I had. I didn’t have to worry about sustaining my motivation, as learning Chinese and later studying in Chinese was already a routine for me. As a student, I work best when I’m enrolled in a program and can combine course learning with self-study.
Motivation for learning Chinese after graduation (2016 onwards)
After graduating and achieving the highest level of Chinese proficiency exams (Level 6) provided at that time, I focused on teaching Chinese and improving myself as a teacher. I didn’t feel motivated to improve my own Chinese because I was mostly teaching lower-level students and also had the challenges of being both a mother and a teacher.
For years I didn’t do much to improve my Chinese level further. I wanted to improve, but I didn’t manage to motivate myself to make it a top priority and truly put in the hard work it would require. I was lacking a concrete goal that had always worked so well for me in the past.
Fast forwarding all the way to the year 2022, the official proficiency exam called the HSK rolled out the advanced Chinese exam (Levels 7 to 9) I was excited to take. Preparing for the exam got me motivated again to improve my Chinese and I had a good couple of months of concentrated effort. After the exam and receiving an HSK Level 8 certificate, I again settled into my routine of being a Chinese teacher.
Now in 2023 I still have a lot I want to achieve with the Chinese language, including increasing my active vocabulary, improving my reading fluency, scientific writing, and being able to discuss my research in Chinese more fluently with a higher level of vocabulary and grammar.
It still remains difficult for me to motivate myself to actively pursue these goals, therefore I am including the language in my Ph.D. program by reading research articles in Chinese and sharing my research on Chinese social media.
Looking back over ten years of learning Mandarin Chinese, I can see that I had such a high motivation, a special bond with the language, and high goals, that I set myself up for success. I enrolled in language courses, graduated with a master’s in teaching Chinese, and wholeheartedly created my whole career around the language. I didn’t try to only rely on self-study, which most likely would have been extremely hard for me to succeed in as I easily procrastinate on tasks.
My motivation has gone through many ups and downs, but the underlying passion has always been there to keep me going. I have mostly been intrinsically motivated and had a strong vision of becoming a fluent speaker of Chinese, but at the same time, I have been motivated by grades and exam results as well. I can recognize myself having feelings that I should be better than I am and that others expect me to be completely fluent, but that self-doubt isn’t strong enough to make me actively study to fulfill the expectations I feel others have about me.
There are many factors that affected my current Chinese language level, but the main reason for sustaining my motivation continues to be the special bond I have with the language, which is difficult to put into specific words. Now as a doctoral researcher in Chinese language learning motivation, I am excited to find out what truly motivates or demotivates students, and perhaps I will learn something new about myself as a learner as well.