Leadership Network members reveal their Mandarin journeys

To mark New Zealand Chinese Language Week, we chatted to four Leadership Network members about their language-learning journeys to find out why they wanted to learn Mandarin and to get their top tips for people just starting out.
Nathalie Harrington as a child outside a school with four people dressed in traditional Chinese clothing

When Nathalie was nine, she moved with her mother to Hunan Province where her mother taught English at a high school and Nathalie embarked on her language-learning journey

When did you start learning Mandarin and what inspired you to start learning the language? 

Nathalie Harrington: I moved to China with my mum just after I turned nine. For the first 18 months, we lived in rural Liuyang County, which is in Hunan Province. So, learning the language was far from a choice, it was a necessity.  My first words were, I think, all in Liuyanghua, but then I started speaking 100 percent Mandarin when I entered the school system. We later lived in Fuzhou (in Fujian Province) so I lost most of my Liuyanghua.

Alex Smith: I started learning Mandarin in my first year of high school in Wellington, so I’ve now been studying it for over half my life. It was really a fortunate fluke that I picked it. My high school required everyone to either study a language or history in years 9 and 10, and it seemed like a more exciting option than French or Latin!  

Amelia Morgan: I started studying Mandarin at University in 2018/2019 after my introduction to China through a prime minister’s scholarship. My heart and mind were immediately captured by the culture and the people so it made sense to start learning the language, albeit at a very busy time at university! 

Jamie Wood: The first time was in Year 9 at high school - it was compulsory to choose a language and study it for two years. Although I thought my language learning would end in Year 10, I thought Mandarin was the most useful choice out of the three options, as I knew a lot of Kiwi businesses relied on China. To my surprise, I did well in Mandarin exams throughout high school, which encouraged me to continue learning. However, I mostly focused on learning the characters.  

Have you been to China or another Chinese-speaking country/place? 

Leadership Network member Jamie on a rockface path with four friends, with a view of mountains behind them

Jamie with friends scaling a precarious path on Mount Huashan, Shaanxi Province, China

Nathalie: When I came back to New Zealand, I continued learning Chinese with a private tutor, then enrolled in some advanced Mandarin courses at VUW.  Through the VUW Chinese programme, I had the chance to go back to China in 2011 to compete in the 10th Annual Chinese Bridge competition – this involved (somewhat unexpectedly) being in China for nearly 2 months. Meanwhile, my mum moved to Kaohsiung, Taiwan in 2005, so I’ve had trips to visit her regularly for the last 18 years. I love Taipei and was able to spend three months on an intensive one-to-one language course at NTU’s ICLP in 2018, with support from the PMSA, the Asia NZ Foundation and the Taiwanese Ministry of Education.  

Alex: I’ve been lucky enough to study Mandarin in both China and Taiwan. I did a year-long immersive language programme at Fudan University in Shanghai in 2014. I’d been to China twice before — once while I was in high school for the televised Chinese speech competition, Chinese Bridge 汉语桥 and again for a university political science field trip.

More recently, I spent six months studying Mandarin at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, Taiwan from the end of 2022 to June of this year. I’d always wanted to live and travel in Taiwan, particularly given its indigenous links to Aotearoa, and my Mandarin was getting very rusty.

Amelia: I studied at Peking University in Beijing for the Summer (Beijing winter), and I completed a two-week ‘entrepreneurship course’ at Fudan University in Shanghai. My first trip to China (Beijing) was through a Prime Ministers Scholarship and opened the ‘gates’ to relationship and journey with China.  

Jamie: During my third year of university I went on exchange to China for one year: six months at Dalian University of Foreign Languages focusing on Mandarin, and six months at Tsinghua University focusing on economics. None of my classmates spoke English in Dalian, so it was a true immersion period - exactly what I wanted! My Mum even came to visit me in China while I was there, so I was grateful to be her tour guide. I also spent some time working in Shanghai before Covid cut the time short.

Is it important to learn the characters as well as the spoken language?

A person's hand using a calligraphy brush to write Chinese characters

Natalie: Learning the characters is really hard, but I think it’s SO important! So much of the language’s meaning is contained in the characters. I’m biased because I’m definitely a visual learner but I can’t imagine trying to wrap my head around the language without being able to refer to the parts of each character, which all impart meaning.

Alex: I’d definitely encourage anyone learning Chinese to learn the characters as well. There are a finite number of sound combinations in Mandarin and a lot of homophones, and this can sometimes create confusion. Mandarin speakers will often mention which particular character or characters they are referring to to make their meaning clear when speaking. Having a grasp of the meanings of individual characters also helps to understand the literal meanings and stories behind words, which is both interesting and also really helpful when learning a new language. Being able to read Chinese, be it books, newspapers, or messaging new friends, also just expands your world so much.

Amelia: Yes it is difficult but learning pinyin alongside character development makes it a lot easier. I love the beauty of characters, it is such a unique and historic practice.

Jamie: I think it depends on the reason why someone wants to learn the language and what they enjoy. I really enjoyed learning the characters. I enjoy puzzles and patterns so maybe that's why... But it taught me a lot about the culture and history of the characters. There are also similarities in some of the characters that indicate what the word may mean. However, I probably spent too much time learning the characters initially and not enough time speaking, so now, I can read more than I can speak. 

What’s your top tip for learners of Chinese? 

A boy surrounded by other kids sitting at tables practicing calligraphy in a school room

Students at Waikirikiri Primary School in Gisborne study te reo and Mandarin

Nathalie: Go to a Chinese-speaking place and spend as long as you can in an immersive environment. Hearing the language used around you in every day life is the best way to reinforce anything you learn in the classroom. 

 Alex: Stick with it consistently and use learning material that you find interesting. It’s easy to get frustrated learning a language that’s substantially different from your mother tongue, but it’s really worth it. I listen to Mandarin language podcasts like One Call Away (打個電話給你) when I’m walking between places and have my phone in Chinese to make sure I get exposure every day.  

Amelia: I would still classify myself as very early on my Chinese language journey having stopped learning for almost two years. I have started studying again this semester through the University of Canterbury by correspondence. My top tip for myself is consistency! 

Jamie: Find someone else who is also learning the language, who will encourage you to keep going, and you can encourage them. It's a challenging but rewarding journey and nothing is more motivating than someone cheering you on. Also have a good understanding of the opportunities speaking Chinese can bring - it has changed my life and opened so many doors - it could do the same for you. 

What’s your favourite Chinese phrase/expression and why?

Nathalie: This honestly changes all the time! A new favourite  is 近水知鱼性, 近山识鸟音 This proverb means that to become familiar with a place or a person, you have to keep in contact with it. Going back to China recently was a great reminder that in person connections are super important to the overall NZ-China relationship, especially post-pandemic. 

Alex: A favourite, and very useful, Mandarin phrase is “a dead pig is not afraid of boiling water (死猪不怕开水烫).” It’s used to describe a situation when one no longer cares about consequences, like when you’ve taken a risk or embarrassed yourself, you may as well double down on it.   

Amelia: “Ganbei” which essentially means cheers/bottoms up! It reminds me of some very fun and adventurous nights in Beijing while studying. 

Jamie: Such a simple phrase, but I remember learning it and thinking, wow this teaches you so much about the culture: "吃了吗?" - Instead of greeting each other with hello, "吃了吗?" or "have you eaten" is often used instead. This shows care for the other person, and how important food and sharing a meal is in China - similar to the value of manaakitanga in Te Ao Māori. 

The Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network equips New Zealand’s next generation of Kiwi leaders to thrive in Asia. We provide members with the connections, knowledge and confidence to lead New Zealand’s future relationship with the region.