Natalie Page, a doctoral student in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences, explains how a virtual language exchange has improved her spoken Mandarin and developed some key employability skills.
I joined the University in 2021 as a part of the Southwest Doctoral Training Partnership, in which China features as a central part of my research interests. My focus is on sustainable international development and my special interest is China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
I am a British citizen, but I grew up in Hong Kong where I started learning Mandarin in school. Improving my Chinese skills has been a longstanding ambition. The Chinese classes in the Skills Centre provided the perfect opportunity for me to continue learning Chinese.
Challenges of Chinese
I participated in 朱老师 Zhū Lǎoshī’s Lower Intermediate Chinese class in 2021-22. The course offered me a fantastic opportunity to improve my skills, particularly in reading and writing. However, I often struggled with speaking.
Mandarin is a tonal language, and this takes time to master. The difference, for example, between shí (时, time) and shì (是, to be) do not come naturally to non-native Chinese speakers, and unlike reading or writing, it’s challenging to practise alone.
I’m a firm believer that nothing beats practising with a native speaker. This is why I signed up for the Virtual Exchange programme between the University of Bath and Xi’An International University. This programme is separate from the standard language course.
I’m very grateful that I took part in the Virtual Exchange because it was such a worthwhile language learning experience.
Expanding cultural horizons
In a year where the Covid-19 pandemic continued to disrupt study and travel experiences, the Chinese Virtual Exchange offered a timely opportunity to meet new people from China and share our cultures.
The programme pairs each Bath student with a partner in Xi’An. We first met as a group, then we met with our exchange partners at least once a week online for six weeks. During this time, we worked together to produce joint projects on a topic of our choice, which we presented in our respective target languages at the end of the semester.
As exchange partners, we helped each other with our presentations. Meeting regularly using apps like WeChat or Teams, we also had the opportunity to chat, teach each other new words, and build a friendship.
Whilst our initial goal was to spend half of our time speaking in Chinese and the other half in English, we found ourselves talking in 'zhōng yīng' (中英), or a combination of Chinese and English, which actually led to fluid and humorous conversations and allowed us to bond over new words.
The joy of having an exchange partner is about engaging in another culture and learning about the lifestyles of individuals living in a different part of the world.
It was great to discover what we had in common, our differences, and all the hobbies, habits and interests we shared.
Building language confidence and budding friendships
One of the best gifts the Virtual Exchange gave me was my confidence when speaking Chinese. Before this experience, I knew I understood basic Chinese and could have simple conversations, but I didn’t know if I could hold hour-long conversations on a variety of topics.
I had to use English words here and there, but I discovered I could be understood by my partners. I’m no longer afraid of being corrected when I make a mistake, particularly as I got to know my partners better over time and felt more comfortable with them.
This experience was the perfect supplement to the core classes I attended, and my Chinese improved rapidly throughout the year.
I’ve since tried to bring my improved confidence with speaking into my daily life and I’m now much more confident speaking Chinese with my Chinese friends.
A virtual travel experience
For anyone currently learning Chinese and considering joining a future Virtual Exchange, I’d definitely recommend the experience. I'm still in touch with my partners and we still interact on WeChat.
The exchange was a unique opportunity that allowed me to connect with a partner in China and develop a range of employability skills (communication, presenting, intercultural awareness, problem-solving) that are a great addition to my CV.
At a time when travelling to China remains a challenge, this online medium offers a 'virtual travel experience' by bridging cultural divides and overcoming language barriers.
I’ve now signed up to do my third VE project - if you'd like to get involved too, you can sign up here.
Image courtesy of Natalie Page, pictured (left) with her Chinese virtual exchange partners from Xi’An International University.