Reflections on a Year of Studying Mandarin Chinese with Duolingo

The impetus for my interest in all things China came from a woman in my high school that I admired, who thought I was a communist. She was part of a conservative family, my being part of a social democratic family was a source of debate between me and her, and as a graduation gift, she gave me the controversial book The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao's Personal Physician by Li Zhisui. Little did she know that I would devour it, and it would propel me into studying Chinese history, politics, and language in university, and stay in the country for two months (and visit for work a few years later).

When studying Chinese in my twenties, I found that the cue cards available at the time a) didn't match the textbook created by our teacher and b) didn't match my learning style. I would go on to create 4-sided cue cards (folded in half with the simplified character (which we were learning), translation, pronunciation and traditional character (which is more prevalent in North American Chinese communities) to help me memorize. I did well in those classes, and wanted to purse it post-university, but I found my interest waned as other events like starting my career and shacking up with someone taking over my time. (Also as a result, I don't have a strong sense of the history of the country from 2008 or so on, so I'm on the lookout for a book-length treatment of the Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping eras.) I had intelligent things to say about China thanks to that part of my education, though.

Years later, as a way to pass the time in the COVID-19 pandemic era, I started practicing through Duolingo. It is definitely not the same as in-class participation with homework, writing exercises and practice partners, that's for sure. It's definitely fun, but Duolingo is not a strong way to learn a language. Having someone to speak with and continuously practicing writing (memorization being especially important for a language with so many characters) is essential in learning a language. I found some classes at the continuing studies department at Canada's largest and therefore best university, though I'm waiting for them to have an in-person component1, and Clubhouse (and their clones) seem to offer an interesting way to deliver lessons over voice-only medium. While I don't think I learned much beyond a few grammar points (I now know how to ask "Where in [city name] do you live?"), it did help bring what I learned in university back to me.

Today I'm celebrating a year of daily lessons, making it all the way to Diamond League. Maintaining a streak of its own sake can be motivating, and this is no different. It got me thinking of taking French lessons again (not through Duolingo) and while I don't think I'll ever return to China, I'm going to continue my long-held interest in the country and its people.

  1. I'm not holding my breath. ↩︎