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Hannah Prior is currently in her second year at Victoria University of Wellington, studying Modern Languages, Development Studies and Data Science. She began her Chinese learning journey when she started at Wellington Girls’ College in year 9 and, along with 9 other university students, she was able to travel to Shanghai for the first time on a scholarship earlier this year. Hannah loves learning languages (she also speaks French and Spanish) and is always happy to put her skills into practice when talking with customers at Wellington’s Harbourside Market, where she works part-time. Hannah is excited to continue her studies of Mandarin Chinese and see what further opportunities it may bring her in the future!

When did you start learning Chinese? What inspired you to take up the language?

I started taking Chinese classes when I was in year 9 at Wellington Girls’ College and have continued right through to my current university classes. Having been exposed to a little bit of Mandarin at primary school thanks to the Mandarin Language Assistants initiative, I was eager to learn more about the Chinese culture and language. 

Tell us about your Chinese language learning journey? What has been the most unexpected or rewarding part of the experience?

I knew very little about China’s history when I entered high school, and had never really written a single character! While my journey with Chinese has definitely involved some steep learning curves, choosing to stick with the language and pursue my studies at tertiary level has been so beneficial. Personally, I believe that the most rewarding part of the experience has been connecting with amazing people that I otherwise would not have been able to meet. My hard-working teachers, Kiwi classmates and Chinese friends have made every step of the journey worth it.

What opportunities have opened up for you as a result of your Chinese speaking ability?

My Chinese language skills have enabled me to access many exciting opportunities, and during high school I was able to participate in the Chinese Bridge Speech Competition and Moving Words translation event, among others. Most recently, I was lucky enough to receive a Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia which allowed me to travel to Shanghai with 9 other students at the start of this year. This was my first direct experience of the Chinese lifestyle, and it did not disappoint! I particularly enjoyed using Mandarin as a lingua franca with my non-English speaking classmates at East China Normal University.

What do you like most about the Chinese culture? 

I greatly appreciate the Chinese people’s welcoming culture of hospitality. Like the tradition of manaakitanga sustained by our own tangata whenua, Chinese people value generosity of spirit and look after their guests with great care. I absolutely love the Chinese way of expressing goodwill through food - I can’t get enough of dishes such as dumplings and Mapo Tofu!

What are the most striking differences between Chinese and Kiwi culture?

I believe that Chinese and Kiwi culture are much more similar than most people think, but there are nonetheless some notable differences. From what I have experienced, the Chinese people place greater importance on respect, especially in professional settings. There is often an orderly hierarchy to be observed, which is less prominent within our laidback Kiwi culture. I would also say that the sheer scale of society leads to cultural differences. The population of Shanghai alone is over 5 times the size of New Zealand’s population, and as a result life moves at a much faster pace.

Why do you think other New Zealanders should learn Chinese? Do you have any tips for anyone thinking of taking up the language?

At a time in which the majority of young Chinese are being taught English, I believe that as New Zealanders we need to increase our level of China competence in turn. Studying their national language is certainly one of the most effective ways of doing this as it allows connection on a deeper level, as I have experienced firsthand through my interactions with Chinese people. Learning Mandarin is no small task, but I think that it’s certainly worth it - even if you don’t reach fluency, you’ll have learnt a great deal about a nation that is of increasing importance globally. My top tip is to find a Chinese language buddy to support you through your studies. Over time, this will honestly help to boost your confidence when speaking Mandarin, and you gain a friend who’s really happy that you’re making the effort to learn their language and understand their culture just as they are making the effort to learn and understand yours.

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