Fēijī – it means Airplane in Mandarin Chinese.

When I was at University we had the option to do an  additional language course on top of the regular degree.  As it was evening study the courses weren’t too popular as most students were too busy getting drunk.  But studying Business it seemed logical to learn Mandarin.

Upon registering the woman, with a touch of a French accent in her voice said

“Everyone is doing that, are you actually going to be serious about it?”

Her response was a bit odd as it wasn’t the most encouraging way to sign people to these courses.  I insisted that I did, she cocked her head back slightly and sighed in the same way a French waiter in Paris might when you give your order in English

“it’s oh so exotic and appealing to everyone…” she added with a touch of sarcasm before copying my details off my student ID.

I didn’t let her comments put me off, but that didn’t stop me being nervous whether I had made the right decision.  I was never very good with foreign languages at school and my school made you study two at once.  I always found it confusing and ended up getting them mixed up.  By the end of schooling I had done French, German and Spanish and couldn’t speak any of them.

The course required the purchase of a book which I picked up at the University book shop.  I sat down in my lonely dorm room and began flicking through.  There was a CD to listen to for each chapter and it wasn’t just the language I had to learn but a whole new writing system too!

What had I let myself in for?  I had to get my head round how to write Chinese characters – least with the European languages they used the same alphabet!

I thought about quitting before I started, but couldn’t help think back to those words at registration

“it’s oh so exotic and appealing to everyone…”


I didn’t want to prove her right so I gave it a go.

For the first few months I struggled.  The teacher would go round the class and put us on the spot to  respond to her or be able to say the word in Mandarin when shown a symbol that was meaningless to me!  Any speaking I could do was… in… a… very… slow…. manner…. and with a very Yorkshire sounding accent.


I watched in class as other students seemed to breeze through it.  I was grateful to one man who was terrible at it because at least it meant I wasn’t the worst person in the room!

For weeks I would come home embarrassed and feeling silly.  Then I would say to myself “I am obviously not the type to be able to learn a foreign language”

I kept telling myself this but ignored the fact I wasn’t putting in additional time after class to read the book and listen to the CD.  Although I was busy with my University work and still trying to settle into student accommodation life, I still made time to hang with housemates, play video games or watch DVDs.

After the Christmas break I decided I didn’t want to look silly anymore.  I started to put in time after class reviewing the homework in further detail.  Each evening I would go back to the Chapter I felt I was the weakest on and the CD was constantly on in the background while I did other things.

To finish off every evening I would write a letter introducing myself in Mandarin “My name is James Lane.  I am English and I live in…”

Gradually I found myself getting sharper with my language.  I lost the feeling of being put on the spot in class and found when it came to identify symbols, the answers were on the tip of my tongue.

Occasionally the teacher would mess with us asking what symbols meant from the ‘additional learning’ section page, which weren’t compulsory for the exam but useful to know.

She pulled out a card with the following symbol to one of the best students in the class:

He stuttered, struggled and looked clueless.  Eventually he shrugged and she passed it onto me.


“Fēijī – it means Airplane!”

“Very good James!” she said slightly surprised while giving me a very cute smile, the sort you see from the love interest in a Hong Kong Kung-Fu movie.


I went home and replayed it all in my head and realised that I was perfectly capable of learning a foreign language – I just need to make sure I practiced enough.

Suddenly I thought about all the things I had said I couldn’t do.

One of those was saying “I wasn’t the University type”

Because of this thought I had made plans of wrapping up the first year and never returning.

When it came to the Mandarin exam I got 77 percent, which wasn’t bad as a couple of months earlier I thought I was going to be lucky to get the pass mark.

As for dropping out of University I decided to return for my second year.  My grades had been improving, I had got used to the noise and I had made some good friends.  And I am glad I stayed, as working hard right to the end I achieved first class honours – the best grade you can get.  So much for not being the University type!

What can I do?  Well the possibilities are endless.

I didn’t continue Mandarin after the first year, but whenever I told myself there was something that I couldn’t do I would think “Fēijī – it means Airplane in Mandarin Chinese”



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