Caterina Bellinetti, a PhD Candidate at the University of Glasgow, speaks to her experience in the 2015-2016 SGSAH Speaking My Language Programme in Chinese.

Learning a language is no easy business, as many of you likely well know. At one point or another, learning a language during a PhD proves possibly even more challenging than the PhD itself, not least because of time constraints and the dedication that is needed.

My walk down this path was via the SGSAH “Learning My Language” Chinese Programme. While the idea, as hinted above, is always a bit daunting, the program was very well structured, with the the first part of the course running for four weeks in October at the Confucius Institute in Edinburgh. Zhu Zhu, the director of Chinese language teaching in the Master of Chinese Studies Programme, gave us an introduction to Chinese language and then left us in the hands of Xue Juan, our main teacher, and three other language tutors.

These four weeks were nothing short of intense as we spent four days from 10am to 4pm at the Institute. We started as absolute beginners: we were taught how to read the much-loathed tones (if you’ve studied Chinese before, you know what I’m talking about!), how to write characters with the correct stroke order, and basic Chinese grammar. Aside from the language, we also had the chance to broaden our knowledge of Chinese culture with targeted seminars on Chinese philosophy, history and food. The end of this first part of the Programme was capped by a brief oral presentation we had to prepare and give in front of Zhu Zhu, Xue Juan and the other tutors.

The second portion of the course took place during the second semester of the academic year, during which we had class once a month from January until April. For the monthly meeting, my classmates and I were asked to do some self-study at home, usually 2-3 chapters from our coursebook. In class, Xue Juan would cover the most important grammar points and make us chat in Chinese about real situations, such as going to the supermarket, booking a hotel or talking about our favourite sports.

The competencies we acquired on the whole are of course limited—due to the nature of Chinese language, not because of our abilities—but represent enough proficiency to be able to confidently handle confidence a trip to China. I am sure no one was expecting to be fluent after only few weeks of study, and moreover, fluency was certainly not the point of the course. Instead, the aim was very much oriented to sparking an interest for the language, giving students the basic essentials to be able to study Chinese independently, and fostering the ability to perform daily tasks in a Chinese environment.

Of course Chinese is not an easy language to learn, mainly because it requires daily dedication if one wants to be fluent. When I tell people that I study Chinese, they usually say: “Oh, you must be so clever!” Naturally, there is likely some sort of inner disposition or inclination that draws one toward learning another language—I don’t deny that—but I believe languages require more than being ‘clever’ to master them. They require discipline and self-sacrifice. In the case of learning Chinese, this means writing characters over and over again, make hundreds of flashcards and running through pencils at a very fast rate (according to my experience, writing characters with a pencil is much better than using a pen).

Personally, I loved this program, as I could learn new things about Chinese language and I got to know other PhD fellows with a similar drive and interest. To get together and spend a few hours talking about our experiences as PhD students, but also as language students, was for me the best aspect of this course. Coming from different backgrounds but also from different countries made our approach to the Chinese language unique and more interesting. Our teacher Xue Juan was also great in creating a productive, relaxed, and supportive atmosphere where we could all try (and miserably fail) to pronounce the tones correctly, work to write the characters with the right stroke order, fail, try again and finally, to get it right.

Readings/films/tools I love and use:

  • Rana Mitter, “Modern China: a Very Short Introduction”.
  • Richard E. Nisbett, “The Geography of Thought: how Asians and Westerners Think Differently”.
  • “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” by Ang Lee, especially the opening scene on food.
  • “Exploring China: a Culinary Adventure” featuring Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang, BBC documentary.
  •, perfect website to learn about Chinese food and food culture.
  •, China Policy Blog of the University of Nottingham where you can find articles of different topics (Chinese politics, culture, economy…)
  • Pleco Dictionary for mobile phones & tablets.


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