Interview With Becca: Your Mandarin Learning Journey

Every language learning journey starts somewhere, and every story is different. This week, meet our NeuLingo customer support specialist, Rebecca Haldi, who is fluent in Mandarin. Get to know how she started learning the language, her experience living in China, how she thinks learning Chinese has helped her in life, her advice to parents of children learning Mandarin, and so much more in this interview! Watch the video here, or read the full transcript below.

The Start of a Language Learning Journey

Monna: Hello, Becca!

Becca: Hi Monna, how are you?

M: Good, good. Well, thank you so much for joining us today for this interview. Okay, so, I know that you are on the NeuLingo team, so why don’t we start by you introducing yourself a little bit and tell us a little bit about what you do with the NeuLingo team?

B: Yeah, so I’ve been with NeuLingo since our soft launch last summer. I do customer service, some scheduling, parent feedback, handling our admin system, just making sure that all the classes progress smoothly.

M: Great, wonderful. Okay, so I know that you speak fluent Chinese and NeuLingo is designed to offer fun and interactive, effective Chinese learning programs for children in North America, so I am very, very interested to know more about your Chinese learning journey. And I know that you learned it as an adult, so it would be a little bit different, you know, than the experience that young children would have. So today during the interview, I’d love to learn more about that. So first of all, can you tell me how you started learning Mandarin and how the experience has been like?

B: Yeah, so I began as an older teenager. I won a scholarship to go to China from the State Department. It’s called the National Security Language Initiative for Youth Scholarship, to send American kids to countries that speak critical foreign languages. So I spent a summer in Beijing with a host family and that was really great. It really encouraged me to keep going with the language, so it was my major in university. And then I did another scholarship, this time from the Chinese government, to study at Sichuan University for a year. Then I came back and I graduated and then I went right back to China. I really liked Chengdo—that’s the capital of Sichuan province—and I kept studying and teaching English and having a really great time, and then I came home to the US last January and I started working for NeuLingo, so it’s been quite a journey.

M: Oh, that’s wonderful. So it looks like your journey with China, with the universities, led you to where you are right now with NeuLingo, and I can definitely see why you chose to work with NeuLingo rather than taking another path. So why did you choose to study Chinese as opposed to other languages?

B: Uh, when I was younger, I really liked Japanese anime. So I initially wanted to learn Japanese, but my mother works for the US federal government, and she said, “You know if you want to learn an Asian language, there’s more demand for Chinese, there’s more opportunities,”and I said “Okay!” And then I realized that I really do think Chinese culture is really fascinating. And actually, especially, through sinofication. That was the process of, thousands of years ago, other cultures in East Asia sent people to  China to learn from China their culture, their writing systems and everything and brought it back to Japan, to Korea, wherever, so a lot of the things that I think maybe Westerners think are really cool about Japan or wherever, they actually come from China. So learning that, that was really amazing.

Living in China

M: That’s awesome. You know what, I am a native speaker of Chinese and I am actually learning Japanese right now and it’s–

B: Are you really?

M: I almost feel like I’m cheating because you can recognize a lot of the Chinese characters. It’s interesting that you mentioned that. Okay, so you mentioned that you love Chinese culture, so what’s your experience like living in China? What are some of the fun things that you’ve experienced and what are some of the weird things that you’ve experienced? Just, you know, I just think our audience will be really interested in learning about your experience living in China.

B: Probably the weirdest thing is, I think in the West, we’re so used to people from other countries and people who are not native speakers of English, but in China, a lot of people really aren’t, especially people from the countryside. You know, they’ll come to big cities like Chengdo as tourists, the way we do, and then they see someone from another country, and they’ve never seen someone like that before, and they get really excited, and so that’s cool. Sometimes they’ll want to take pictures with you like you’re a celebrity. And so it’s just cool, and it’s neat.

One harder thing that’s still weird but fun is… there aren’t… a lot of people aren’t used to non-native speakers of Mandarin. Like, they’ve never heard a non-native speaker try to speak Mandarin before and it, like, blows their minds sometimes. Like in English, if somebody says something and they’re clearly from another country, and maybe they say it kind of wrong or their accent’s a bit thick or they use the wrong word, I think naturally, okay, what are they trying to say? But a lot of Chinese people, they’ve never been in that situation before, and they have no idea what to do, so they take whatever you say at face value. So I remember we were in our dorm at Sichuan University and there was a mouse, and we were like, “Oh my god!” And we went down to the lady at the desk. And as you know, the word for mouse is lăoshŭ but I had it mixed up with the word for tiger, lǎohǔ, and I was like, “Oh my god, there’s a tiger in our room!” And she’s like, “OH MY GOD! Who should I call? Should I call the police?” and we were like, “That’s kind of a big reaction for a mouse.” And only later that I realized  that I said the wrong thing.

A tiger, or lǎohǔ: definitely not a mouse!

M: That’s so funny.

B: It is, yeah, there’s just stuff like that. You know, it’s really such a huge country with so many people. It’s hard to generalize, you know, because just, there’s all sorts of people there. But definitely, most of the people I met were really amazing.

How Language Learning Changes Lives

M: That’s great, thank you, thank you. So, how do you think learning Chinese has helped you in life?  Like in terms of your career development or you know, your experience and your perspective? Right? Like, how you think, how you appreciate different culture? So if you could tell us a little bit about this, that would be great.

B: Definitely it makes you think about things in different ways. Probably one of my favorite things about Mandarin is that it’s a very literal language. A word is how you would describe that thing as being. So, like, the word for ‘mermaid’ is a ‘beautiful person fish’ is how it literally translates, or the word for skunk is a ‘smelly weasel,’ and I think that’s awesome. And it really makes you think, as a learner of Chinese, why are our words the way we are? Are there more effective ways to communicate? And so that really, I think, helps you learn how to solve a lot of interpersonal problems that can crop up either in your personal life or at work is thinking, “Okay, how can I better communicate this?” And definitely, learning Mandarin has allowed me to do my job now at NeuLingo now because our admin system is in Chinese and we have to communicate with the Chinese teachers, so it’s been a really fruitful experience, I think.

Advice for Language Learners

M: That’s wonderful, thank you, thank you. Okay, so, you’re interacting with a lot of parents and students who are interested in learning Mandarin, learning Chinese, and also our native speaking teachers. Do you have any advice for parents who are interested in learning Mandarin and understanding Chinese culture?

B: Definitely. I think a lot of parents have this expectation that their child will be able to just start speaking Mandarin right away. And I think it’s really good to step back from that expectation and realize, it’s a really hard language. It’s really different from English. But just starting it young is such an amazing opportunity. Like, you know, when I was a child, there weren’t services like NeuLingo. Like, maybe if you lived in New York, you could find a private tutor to meet with one on one, but there were no online services, you know. So I’m actually really envious of kids who get to use NeuLingo when they’re five, six, eight, nine.

And really, just the biggest thing is doing it at least once a week, twice if you’re able, and obviously more is better. Just to be able to interact with a native speaker once a week is such a phenomenal opportunity, and then if you push it further by making sure you study on your own. Doing flashcards, maybe watching some type of TV in Chinese, listening to a few Chinese songs. Maybe you won’t see a lot of progress at the very beginning, but over time, it really builds up, and it’s amazing how much children can learn without even realizing. Like, they absorb it like crazy. And then suddenly one day, you’re in a situation where you need to speak Chinese and you can. And it’s just a really amazing feeling.

M: Great, thank you. Yeah, I totally agree with you. Young children’s brains, they’re like sponges, right? You just absorb everything. And you touched upon songs and stories. I remember when I was learning English, I listened to a lot of pop songs. And I remember there was one time I had to do a speech in class and one phrase just popped out of my mouth, you know, I didn’t even realize that, but my teacher was like, “Oh wow, how did you know that phrase?” So I think the same could happen with young children who are learning Mandarin right now. Thank you so much. We really enjoyed learning about your experience learning Chinese, your experience living in China, and that fun story about lăoshŭ and lǎohǔ . Well, thank you very much, and we hope that students with the NeuLingo program will have the same kind of experience and would really lay a good foundation of Mandarin learning. And hopefully they can all go to China and experience the language and people and culture there in the future. Thank you! (Says goodbye in Mandarin.)

B: (Says goodbye in Mandarin)