“John, what is the word for mouse?”

Teesside John, pauses, he’s sat behind me in the lecture hall so I don’t actual get to see his body language, but I sense his discomfort as he stumbles to try and answer a question he doesn’t actually know the answer to.

The sound of his voice stutters, an awkward silent pause and then I hear the faint shuffle of his Learn Conversational Mandarin Chinese: For Beginners book in what I assume is Teesside John’s futile attempt to look down at the pages for inspiration for an answer that will never come.

He gives a few umm’s and err’s which don’t offer much in communication but even with his thinking noises, you can clearly decipher he is a ‘Boro native.  A part of me revels in his misfortune, because as long as he is in the class I’m not the worse student here.

But that doesn’t stop me feeling anxious, Teesside John maybe in the spotlight now, but I know it soon will be my turn to be put under some pressure to rattle off the Chinese word of some animal, which for whatever reason is deemed significant enough to know on a beginner’s course.

Image from Pixabay

I still remember the teachers name like it was yesterday – Anne Che, a native to China, with a background in law enforcement, which makes sense as she runs her classes with the same routine and discipline that I imagine the Chinese legal system functions like.

In a way this makes the format of the classes predictable, you know when it’s going to be your turn to speak, but this can make it worse, a dreading tension as you count down through the students sat next to you, knowing soon the whole class will be giving you full attention, waiting for your response.

Regardless of format, the language still comes off as complex and weird.  The more I think about it, the more my mouth dries, my stomach tightens, and I keep thinking

“Why did I put myself forward to do an extra class?”

At night, I’ve woken up in cold sweats from having a dream that I’m in school being pressed to give an a answer to a question I have no clue how to respond, but this is reality.  Finally, attention was directed towards me.

“James, what is word for pig?” said Anne Che.

Although she had command of the English better than I had of her language, you could tell, she hadn’t quite mastered the language.  Her tone was stern, and words sometimes slipped so they sounded broken.

My face reddened and I reached for my water bottle to wet my throat.


I looked down at the textbook in embarrassment, gave a half-hearted shake of my head and my voiced rasped pathetically to say I did not know.

Anne Che, paused for a second, said nothing of my failure and then moved onto the next person, repeating the question.

It was answered successfully by the French exchange student.  There’s something quite amusing to think that English wasn’t his first language yet he was more competent than me at learning mandarin in a class not presented in his mother tongue.

He glanced to the side and gave me a slight smug satisfied grin.  Embarrassed by the failure, I looked down into the textbook, looking at the words, begging them to absorb into my head, as if class time revision would suddenly make a massive difference.

Image from Pixabay

You could say I was glutton for punishment, as this scenario repeated ad-nauseum for months, I almost imagined the classes frustration at this dunce who could never remember the words.

That was until one class, which I remember well, we were going through all the types of transport, and Anne Che was pressing the French exchange student to tell everyone what the mandarin for aeroplane was.

For once I wasn’t clueless with an answer, in fact I didn’t feel dread and was so confident I just wanted to blurt it out the answer.  The French exchange student admitted defeat and the question bounced to me.

“Feiji” I said without hesitation.

Anne Che was stunned.

“Well done James” she said with a smile, giving a rare complement that most of the class (even the good performers) never experienced.  I guess with my months of incompetence, I must have set the bar so low with my abilities that being able to give her a coherent, correct response surprised her.

I looked over at the French exchange student, he gave me a congratulatory nod then looked down at his textbook.  I couldn’t help but smile.

Image from Pixabay

That lesson marked the turning point in my attempts at learning basic Mandarin Chinese, after that everything seemed to click together in class from speaking, to being able to read and write the language which once seemed so alien-like.

By the end of the year, I sat a test and got a good pass of 78% – one of the highest grades in the class, not bad to say I was written off as only just likely to pass – if I was lucky a few months earlier.

The whole experience taught me a lot about achievement – How did I improve so much?  Well let me tell you…

When you feel self-consciously stupid…

Every time I attend a lesson I often ended up being put on the spot and couldn’t answer.  This made me feel ridiculously self-conscious.  As I paused trying to choke out an answer, I imagined everyone in the room thinking “come on this is easy, hurry up, are you stupid?…”

And for every missed answer I became more and more anxious and self-doubting:

“What am I doing here?” I would ask myself.

“You’re obviously not someone who is capable of learning a foreign language…”

Yes, I felt defeated and I never remember quite what caused me to stay committed to the course, but I persisted.

It would have been so easy to quit, most the people in my class were after school learners with full-time jobs who I would never see again, so my incompetency could be forgotten about all together, but I didn’t.

After one too many humiliations, I realised if I was going to improve I needed to dedicate a lot more time to learning the language.

Firstly, this meant making sacrifices, when my housemates were out partying, and doing other fun things I’d much rather by doing, I was in my bedroom parroting the words from a CD, reading through the Hanzi (Chinese characters) and constantly writing the same basic information on paper again and again.

Ni hao, Wǒ jiào…

I knew I could be down the students union right now with a drink in hand eyeing up girls, but I wanted this, I didn’t want to feel that anxiety being asked to say a word, I didn’t want to keep looking silly every week, I wanted to learn the basics of mandarin Chinese…  And I did.

A massive lesson from all of this was, if you persist enough to learn your craft you can do it.  This has given me the firm belief that anyone can achieve anything if they put the hours in.

Lessons Learned – from stupid to successful…

This whole experience taught me a lot of things.  These were the big lessons I learned:

Keep persisting:

You may fail a thousand times, but if you keep working at something, you’ll get there eventually.


When times get tough you might want to hide away, but you don’t get better by skipping these responsibilities.  By simply having these in place it can function to keep you accountable to put in the effort.

Put in the time:

If you want to get good at something you need to do your time, there is no such thing as a natural at anything.  You can’t expect to fluff your way through things and expect to get top results without lots of hardwork behind it.

Spend lots of time doing the tasks that will help you master your end goal.

Make the sacrifice:

When you want something, other things have got to give.  It might mean not spending as much time with friends, meaning you’re not as cool or getting social validation.

As a first year student at university I still see friends from time to time and they say ““Do you remember about that time when we…” and we have that awkward moment when they realise I wasn’t there.  I do feel I missed out on some of these things, but the lessons behind learning mandarin have taught me more about achieving greatness than messing around with friends.

Have faith:

Believe in your abilities for success.  Don’t be like me – I told myself I wasn’t capable of learning a foreign language.  But really, I just wasn’t putting in the effort to get better.

This is a good example of having a fixed mindset, stop saying these limited beliefs defining yourself as a particular person.  If you want to achieve your goal, then you need to start with having that faith in yourself to know that you will do it.

Don’t worry about others:

When you put yourself out of your comfort zone, you put your heart on the line to mockery and judgement.  If everyone worried about the opinion of others, then nothing would be done.

In class when the French exchange student gave me a grin, this made me feel self-conscious in my abilities like I was being judged.

But the thoughts you have what others think of you don’t matter, nor do their actually opinions – stop worrying and get to work.

Don’t let fear and anxiety stop you doing what you want to do:

Every time I went to class, I had the fear I was going to look stupid in class.  This prophecy came true a lot and I had a lot of anxiety about attending.  But this is something I really wanted to do.

It’s a shame when people give up on something they really want to do because of their fears.  Don’t let it stop you, use those fears to drive you to do better.

It will connect:

When I started the journey to learn a foreign language, I didn’t know where it would take me.  I always view studying mandarin is akin to finishing a complex puzzle.  At first you can’t work it out, so you study it, play about with it.  Despite the efforts you still don’t have the answer.

But you persist, you have breaks and keep coming back to it with a clearer head pushing and pushing  until one day something clicks, the riddle is solved and from your experiences you find other puzzles of a similar nature not as complex.

That day I sat in class and was able to say the word for an aeroplane, was when it felt like everything connected together, those Mandarin words that kept making me draw blanks for months began to roll off the tongue.  If I was a scientist, then I’d discovered the magic formula.

Therefore, whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re struggling with – do you really want it?  Yes?  Then keep going, you’ll get there if you keep persisting.

<< read the original post which inspired this: Fēijī>>

Thanks for reading, wishing you the best in your success.

James @Perfect Manifesto.


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14 thoughts on “What Learning Mandarin Taught Me About Persistence

      1. Not at all. I gradually forgot a lot of it from not using it. Last time I did was talking to a Chinese girl in a job I had about 9 years ago. I said ‘hello, how are you?’ She looked at me blank so then I never spoke it again!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. it seems like any language is hard to keep up with unless you get the chance to constantly use it…

        and as for trying our your Chinese – at least you tried! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I think that’s it. I probably have a poor attitude to learning a second language, but I just think I’ll learn one only if I really need to.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. That’s how I’ve become with learning so general since my life has become so hectic. I just now think will I practically use it or can I outsource it? I know when I wanted to ‘learn to code’ seeing how effortless a developer could do the work against my evening learning made me realise it wasn’t worth the time!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. This was extremely well written, at first I wasn’t sure if I was reading an extract from a novel or if you were outlining your lived experience. I wish I was as good at writing as that. I thought about learning mandarin once, then opted for Japanese audio lessons, but my issues with phonetics due to my dyslexia make it hard

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much! My writing is a continued work in progress though I quite like using story element to talk round the lessons from the post.

      That’s a shame to hear, not sure if eastern languages are similar, but when I got my head around how the language structure worked I found it more straightforward than learning French, German and Spanish!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. James, this is an incredible example and set of strategies for persistence.

    I often tell my students that the ONE TRAIT / SKILL that got me through my PhD was PERSEVERANCE. Period.

    And your examples for each of the subsets of this are EVERYTHING. Beginning with SHOW UP.

    Thank you for being such a great leader and teacher on my wordpress blog feed. Your words always add to my community life lessons. Have a wonderful night James!


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