Q&A with Holly Snape

Holly is a postgraduate student at the University of Bristol. Holly didn’t really enjoy studying languages when she was younger, but in order to pursue her postgraduate study Holly needs to speak Chinese. In only three years has gone from novice to near fluent and has taught herself most of this! One day, Holly would love to live and work in China for a Chinese NGO.

So what has motivated you to learn Chinese?

Well, I did a Masters Degree at the University of Bristol and I was researching about Chinese NGOs. As part of my year long Masters Degree I had to spend 6 months in China. Seeing my degree was looking at Chinese NGOs, it only made sense to spend some time there and to get a real feel and understanding for them which can’t be learnt or read about in a book. I soon realised that I just couldn’t do that research without knowing and speaking Chinese.

What is your PHD about?

I’m doing a PHD in Chinese social sciences at the University of Bristol. I’m doing research on Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in China. In particular, I’m researching migrant workers. My PHD study is funded by the BICC (British Inter-University China Centre).

So how does speaking Chinese help with your PHD?

Well there isn’t any English literature on the Chinese NGOs that my research is looking at as this is a really contemporary area of study. They’ve only had these types of NGOs in China for the last 10 to 20 years so everything that I need to do for my PHD is in Chinese; everything I read is in Chinese and all of my research is in Chinese; I have to do interviews in Chinese with Chinese people and do work placements with NGOs in China.

Did you find learning Chinese daunting?

No, as I really wanted to speak to Chinese. When I first graduated I worked in Japan for a year. Whilst I was there I taught myself some Japanese and because the Japanese characters are similar to the Chinese characters I had a basic understanding of Chinese characters. So I think that helped me to pick up Chinese quite easily.

Have you ever used your Chinese outside of a classroom?

Yes, last month I did an internship at a small, grassroots organisation and because the scale of this organisation was very small it meant that everyone was Chinese and absolutely no English was spoken there. We could only communicate in Chinese as they had never studied English.

So how important is it to speak foreign languages in the workplace?

Languages are really important, I can vouch for that. Everything we do we need to communicate and we do this by using languages. If English is the only language we communicate in, then we just miss so much; we especially miss out on cultural reference and of course that’s crucial to understanding other countries. In the workplace it’s important to speak another language. If a British business trades with China, then they should have a British translator who can translate from Chinese into English during meetings and then they are on equal terms as it’s unfair to think that everyone else will speak in English. It’s important in academia; if I didn’t know Chinese then I wouldn’t be able to do my academic research properly. So speaking Chinese is important in lots of sectors and not just in the workplace. I honestly think speaking languages can make your life so much more interesting and full of excitement.

Where did you go to learn Chinese?

I started with a really basic course that was provided by my university when I did my Masters. But it was a really, really basic course and it didn’t cover nearly enough for what I wanted to achieve. So then I pretty much started learning Chinese on my own.

How did you manage to teach yourself Chinese?

I taught Chinese myself as much as I could until I was able go to China. Basically, that meant I went to every bookshop that I could find and bought everything that had been published about learning Chinese. I also used ‘ChinesePod’ which is a learning website that uses audio lesson podcasts and online resources. And, more recently I have been using Chinese 101 which is also quite good but ChinesePod is better.

Have you found learning Chinese difficult?

I haven’t found it difficult because I know what my motivation is. When I first started learning Chinese, I knew that I wanted to be able to communicate in Chinese at a high level. I wanted to actually be able to use the Chinese that I was learning. I was very motivated. I don’t think I found it difficult because it became my life. If I went to the supermarket then I would be wearing headphones and be listening to Chinese lessons. I just made it part of my routine every single day.

How many hours did you dedicate to learning Chinese each day?

Probably a lot!! I’d get up quite early at about half five/six o’clock and I know that’s really early for a student but I used this time to do some self study for two to three hours and then that way I could still do everything that I needed to do in the daytime. This included going to university and doing other things that are completely unrelated to learning Chinese. Then I would maybe do another three or four hours in the evening. So I’d say I spent about six hours a day learning Chinese.

What level of proficiency are you at with your Chinese?

Well,I have just finished studying for two semesters on a language course at Peking University in Beijing and I was placed in the top class for that. I guess I’m somewhere near fluent but there’s still a long journey ahead. I can read academic literature or newspapers written in Chinese. I can write an essay in Chinese and I can have a conversation about most complicated subjects too.

How many years have you been learning Chinese for?

This is the third year that I’ve been studying Chinese.

So can you write in Chinese characters?

Yeah I can write, but I still have to check the dictionary. Even Chinese people have to check the dictionary for words they don’t write very often. And Chinese people type a lot these days so it’s easy to forget how to write in Chinese characters.

Who will you have to interview for your research?

I guess it’s everyone from university lecturers and professors to just normal people.  I’ll hopefully interview government officials as well.

How do people react when they find out you can speak Chinese?

I think a lot of people think it is unusual and weird. I could be sitting on the bus, minding my own business, reading a book in Chinese and look up to see a lot of confused faces. Some people have stopped me and asked ‘What is that you’re reading?’ I guess they think it is bizarre that a normal, British person from York knows Chinese. But for me it is just part of life.

What’s the best thing about living in China?

I like most things about living in China. I have a lot of Chinese friends who are really fantastic; really welcoming, good, nice people. I found it really easy to make friends there. And Chinese food is awesome, probably the best in the world. But I would have to say that the best thing about living in China is that every single day is different. Everything is exciting and it’s a really rich, varied life. Life has a lot of flavour to it– well that’s what they say in China!

What do you plan to do once you finish your PHD?

I’m going to spend the rest of my life in China! I’m hoping to work for a Chinese NGO.

Did you learn languages at School?

Yes, but I hated it. Well, to be honest I didn’t hate it for the first couple of years; in fact I really liked it. I really did want to be able to speak French or German. I did a year of German and then went on a German exchange and didn’t have a great experience. I did French up to A-level and got a decent grade. But the reasons why I didn’t enjoy languages at school was because I didn’t really see the purpose of speaking a language when I didn’t want to go to that country and  I didn’t have a real reason to learn it, whereas with Chinese I want to learn it and I have a purpose for learning it.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about learning a new language?

I just made my mind up that I wanted to do it so I guess when you make your mind up that you really want to do something then you should do it.

What has been the hardest thing about learning Chinese?

I would say is that I was quite frustrated in the beginning. Not because I found it hard, but because I wanted more. I wanted to be able to access more material. Nowadays, there is a lot more material out there, but three years ago there wasn’t.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about taking languages at school or at university?

I would say figure out what you can do with the language you’re studying. So whether you want to learn that language so you can make friends or whether you can work in that country or travel around that country or whatever it may be. Figure out what you can do with it and why you want to do speak that language. And then if you do put in a lot of hard work in it can be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do.

Can you sum up languages in one word?

Languages are life! That’s what they are. If you don’t have language what have you got? You can’t communicate anything that’s in your head. And I know you said one word and that isn’t but that’s what languages are.

I soon realised that I just couldn't do my research without knowing and speaking Chinese.