How Studying Chinese Changed My Life

“Honey, I think you should study Chinese,” my dear hubby said. Did he really just say that? The plan was to take a pause in teaching English, move to another city, and he would be the full-time student. I wasn’t supposed to be part of that. That wasn’t the deal.

He graciously presented the reasons why: I’m at home more often, interacting with all the non-English-speaking neighbors and grannies; I do all of the shopping in a small town with zero English; I’d understand more of the culture I had a bad habit of bashing; and, the best part of the deal—he was willing to stay at home with our two small boys. Be a stay-at-home daddy. That was big.

I still had plenty of reasons I shouldn’t study. It’s waay too hard! Didn’t he know besides Arabic, it’s the hardest language for us to study? I’d have to be ok with how he ran the house. I had already been doing this for 3+ years; could I let go of the way I did things? He was, again, very graciously willing to stay at home, but not so willing to take over shopping and cooking. Full-time study and keep those responsibilities? That’s a lot. And, perhaps the hardest thing to get over, I had failed at learning a language before.

I studied Spanish from junior high through my junior year of college. I minored in it. My plan was to teach Elementary school, integrating Spanish daily. After graduating from college, I ended up teaching High School Spanish in an inner-city school. Yes, random, but the school really needed me. Before taking the position, I had become the last substitute for the year after 7—seven–other teachers had quit on these students. I wasn’t certified to teach it, but they made it work.

To be certified, I needed to pass the Spanish Praxis. I wasn’t excited. I studied with my Spanish major hubby, but not very seriously. Couldn’t be that hard, right? First try: missed it by 3 points. Ok, study a bit harder. Those conjugations are beasts! Second try: missed it by 7 points. Shucks. This is annoying. Third time’s a charm! Third try: missed by 5 points. For real?! I failed. 3 times over.

After 3 years and 3 fails at passing the test, I got pregnant. It was my card out. Whew. But the pain and sense of failure never left. I was going to have to face it and move past it to study Chinese.

It wasn’t pretty some days. I even started crying in class one day because I kept saying the wrong answer when called on. I ran out, insanely embarrassed, not willing to show my face in class again that day. Thankfully, I was in a class with amazing people from our organization. They were kind and loving. They didn’t judge. They eventually helped me learn how to laugh at my mistakes. We all messed up. Some days it was easier to cry than to laugh, and that was ok, too.

By God’s never-ending grace, I made it through that year. In the early days, I would go to school for 4 hours, race home to feed my not-yet-weaned baby, scarf lunch, then cycle back to school for tutor time. As soon as I walked in the door, my hubby was on his way out for his tutor time. Oh yeah, while staying at home with the boys, he also taught himself Chinese and stayed on track with my classmates and me. Amazing.

I had a lot of fun that year, too. Honestly, a break from wiping and cleaning and entertaining the kiddos was pretty sweet. I mean, I love being a mom, but I also love socializing! Who knew, by the end of it all, I’d be socializing in Chinese!

Being on the other side of studying, I see oodles of reasons to dive in, while the reasons not to study look miniscule. I don’t claim to be fluent in the least, but life around me has become increasingly easier and this is why:

  • I can communicate with those around me. The charades game has diminished greatly!
  • I now know when the water will be shut off for days instead of getting angry when it “randomly” shuts off, only to find out there was a notice taped to the door all along.
  • I have begun to understand more of the culture. I still have a hard time with some things, but being able to discuss why they do things has helped.
  • I can share the Father’s love in their heart language. This opens the doors wide!
  • I can now read (some) signs around me. How freeing! I don’t have to go into every store front just to find a light bulb! For those signs I can’t read (and there are many!), I can simply ask someone nearby.
  • I can see us living here for a long time. I can see my purpose of being here—more than just raising kids in another culture.

Yes, it was a sacrifice. It was hard. I cried a lot. But not as much as I did our first year there. I was miserable and isolated then. Now, I can see a few ways that I can actually partake in our ministry there. In English or Chinese, probably both.

Some of you may be thinking, “My husband would never stay home with the kids! He’d have to homeschool, too”! I get it. I know it’s a sacrifice for everyone involved. But if you feel an urge to study, open the discussion. Pray. You have come as a unit to this foreign land. Would you be able to connect with those around you more if you could communicate well with them?

If he already speaks the local language, ask him to put himself in your shoes—would he feel isolated and unhappy? Be willing to look at the long-term picture. If you plan on staying there a while, you have to be able to live there joyfully. For some, dare I say most, that involves a decent amount of studying.

How has studying a language changed your life? What could be different if you were able to study?

Photo Source : Unsplash


  1. Ginny February 8, 2015

    Perfect timing! I’m 6 months into my third country/language in 6 years. I know what it takes to build those lasting relationships with my host culture, and language is at the top! Yet, I work all day in Engliah and study 3 evenings a week (after a full day!) and the going is slow and discouraging. Thanks for the reminder that it pays off eventually!

    1. Ashley Felder February 8, 2015

      Ginny, good for you for persevering! It is tough, especially when you’re doing something else full-time, but the fruits of your labor will begin to appear soon!

  2. Kaylee February 8, 2015

    It is SUCH a blessing to be able to speak in the local language. Our first two years in Bolivia were spent learning Spanish and it was so hard as mom to 3 little girls to find the balance and energy for classes, language helper sessions and study time but I’m so thankful for the ability to communicate. My husband is gifted in language, I am not and I found I really have to keep myself from comparing our communication skills. I also can’t use him as a crutch or else there’s no challenge for improving my language ability!

    1. Ashley Felder February 8, 2015

      Kaylee, yes! I totally relate to you with having a gifted hubby in the language department. It can be frustrating sometimes how fast he can pick things up, but I’ve finally come to a point that I see we can work together. He’s very good at vocab and reading characters. I gave up on learning characters long ago, but because I talk a lot, my speaking can be a smidge better than him sometimes. Thankful we make a good team!
      Keep up the good work of studying with a family at home to take care of!!

  3. Sherry Y February 8, 2015

    Great article.  My story is a little different.  My husband and I studied Chinese for two years when we first moved to China.  Then I started teaching English and had fewer opportunities to speak Chinese.  My husband has become quite fluent and I’ve stayed stuck at a kindergarten level!  I don’t really need to speak Chinese for my job, but I’d love to be able to have deeper conversations with people.  So, last year I had a chance to study Chinese again for a semester.  I was thrilled, but soon realized that I’ll probably never be as fluent as I’d like to be.  I came to the point of acceptance that I’ve reached a plateau and won’t advance much further.  I love teaching and don’t need really need Chinese for the job.  I’ve had to let go of that dream.  It’s been hard, but God has blessed me with that decision.

    1. Ashley Felder February 8, 2015

      Sherry, I know that plateau feeling. I’ve come to terms with mine as well. It helps to know that it’s a super hard language for us English-speakers, but giving up a dream to be fluent is tough. Know that the locals love every word you can speak! I love how excited and complimentary they are of my attempts to converse with them. 🙂

  4. Lydia February 9, 2015

    Language study is something that I haven’t done very joyfully. Anything that comes up to interrupt my language lessons has taken precedence… so much so that it’s now not just from my side, but also from my teacher’s side! Last week I decided that I have to spend more time studying — and since I know I’m not great at self-study, I need to spend more time with a teacher. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting to hear whether my current teacher is able to go from once a week (maybe) to two or three times a week.

    Today marks one year here in my host country… I had much higher hopes of being able to speak with people after a year! It’s too easy to coast along and depend on my husband who has been here five years and is almost fluent. But as others have mentioned, the isolation factor is significant. Because I do have some language skills I end up being the one keeping the kids we work with in line (Don’t write on the table! Don’t hit each other! Be quiet during the lesson! Stop touching that!) and it’s perhaps more isolating than not being able to communicate at all. I want to be able to communicate love, not just directions! I’m thankful for the language theme here on VA. It came just as I was feeling discouraged about learning language and about the prospect of having to find another teacher.

    1. Ashley Felder February 10, 2015

      Lydia, I understand the discouragement! I can’t say I was very joyful during my journey, either. I hope you can find a way to study a bit more, but do know that whatever you can do, God can be glorified. He (and the locals, too!) are blessed by you even putting in the effort to learn the local language.

  5. Anita Yoder February 9, 2015

    I’m in my 5th year teaching ESL in Poland, and language acquisition has been SO painful. It’s the main reason I’m leaving this summer. Ironically, the experience has been loaded with grace. It’s done so many good things to me. Funny, how that works. Still, I’m pleading with God to never ask me to learn another language…

    1. Ashley Felder February 10, 2015

      Anita, yes, isn’t it ironic how such difficult times can be draped in such grace. Only an almighty God could do such things! Saying a prayer that you can heal and learn from this experience to carry with you in your next one.

  6. MaDonna February 9, 2015

    I can relate to the group who married a fluent speaker. I married a MK who pretty much speaks like a local Chinese, speaks a little Taiwanese. Oh, and he’s German, so fluent in English and German. Yeah, I definitely struggle in this area of language learning envy…but, we’ve been married long enough now that I just have come to terms that language will be difficult for me, but not to give up – to at least keep and use what I have.

    1. Ashley Felder February 10, 2015

      MaDonna, wow! What a gift your husband has to speak so many languages! I bet you benefit from that gift, too. 🙂 Glad you’re not giving up on this difficult language. I’m content with what I skills I have, but know that I need to keep learning for as long as we’re here. That doesn’t excite me, but I know it’s necessary.

  7. T February 9, 2015

    Hi!  One thought that I tell myself (in order to keep trying to learn, instead of giving up) is to count how many years I have left until retirement age…right now, I’m at 28 more years…and they may raise retirement age later, so realistically 30!  So, every word or phrase that I learn now, I can enjoy the usefulness of for at least 30 years (God willing).  This investment today could pay off for many years to come.

  8. Brittany June 10, 2015

    My husband and I are currently in our 3rd year here in China. We lived in Korea for 3 years and never learned the language. We regret that so much because we never felt like we were apart of the community there and now we know why. After learning Chinese, we feel like this is our home and we feel like we are apart of something. Just speaking to our neighbors in Chinese has opened so many doors for us! We both know this will be our long term home because we have so many friends that are Chinese now and we can get along so well in our community.  Language is SO important when living in another culture!

    1. Ashley Felder June 11, 2015

      Brittany, I totally agree! Knowing some of the language has changed so many things! Glad you had the chance to learn it and are thriving a bit more because of it!

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