My second year of Chinese studies in China is about to start, this time at a Shanghai university. The first day of the semester consists of a placement test. All of us new exchange student wait outside the classroom, clutching our newly sharpened pencils and feeling like we did on our very first school day.
I get called in.
“Can. You. Speak. Chinese?” asks a teacher in an extremely clear standard Mandarin.
“Some”, I say, modestly.
The rest of this short interview is carried out talking about where and how I studied Chinese (For. How. Long. Have. You. Been. Studying. Chinese?).
Onwards then to the written part of the test, more than half of the texts and many of the sentences that I am to fill in/ explain/ put in the right order is about foreign students studying Chinese. One of them is obviously written by a Chinese, since the foreign student in this text finds the Chinese habit of shouting “Look at the foreigner!” a good starting point for small talk with locals (more of a motivation for learning rude words in Chinese, in my opinion).
Sure, these texts might be good way to find out whether I have grasped sentence structure and grammar particles. But. Talking about studying Chinese really doesn’t say anything about how much Chinese you actually know. This is because the first thing everyone who studies Chinese in China will learn are words that relate to studies. Fair enough, it might help you to understand the teacher if you know the words for “homework”, “exam” or “study harder”. But even on a fairly advanced level many textbooks are filled with names like Bi De (Peter), Da Wei (David) and Ai Mi (Amy) and their adventures on campus.
I was able to talk about taking the Chinese equivalent of a TOEFL-test before I could ask for a spoon at the local noodle restaurant.
The problem then, is that normal conversations quite seldom has to do with the life of Da Wei, Bi De and Ai Mi. Especially since their lives very seldom seem to include such foreign students’ activities as partying all night and getting locked out of your dormitory. And before you have some kind of basic vocabulary it is hard to talk to Chinese, in Chinese.
Once you’ve acquired that vocabulary, though, your Chinese friends can teach what your textbooks wont. Like how to tell people to piss off or to convince the grumpy guard to let you in at 3 at night, smelling of baijiu.