Learning Chinese opens doors to wider world

21 Sep 2020

We chat with Leadership Network member Emily Wilby about why she took up studying Mandarin Chinese, her language learning journey and the opportunities studying Mandarin have provided her.
Emily Wibly and a friend sitting on bikes on a highway overpath
Emily: "[studying Mandarin] has opened so many doors. I’ve met amazing people from all around the world and had such incredible experiences."

What first got you interested in learning Mandarin?
My great-grandparents on my Mum’s side came to New Zealand from Guangzhou in the 1890s. My family don’t speak Chinese now (and it was Cantonese not Mandarin) but I loved seeing the little Chinese ornaments around my Grandad’s place and my parents always kept us interested in Chinese culture.

How long have you been studying the language?
I started studying Mandarin at high school, although before that I also took Mandarin as an elective at intermediate, which gave me a basic introduction to the language.

I studied Mandarin at Wellington East Girl’s College and carried on at the University of Canterbury. I then spent six months doing a language course at Xiamen University in Fujian Province, and recently finished my Master’s at East China Normal University in Shanghai. My lectures were taught entirely in Mandarin and I researched and wrote my thesis in Mandarin.

What was it like when you first started leaning Mandarin?
I just remember really enjoying it. I always preferred subjects like languages and music, which were more fun and interactive. I don’t think I thought too much about whether it would be hard or not, although I definitely thought a lot about that when I was doing Master’s!

What was it like living in China?
I’ve spent about three years in China now, mainly studying but also travelling and doing some teaching. I went there mainly for the language and culture, but I’ve also always wanted to live overseas.

The first time I went to China I was fifteen and could only speak a little bit of Mandarin, but I loved it. By the time I finished Master’s in Shanghai, I was almost only speaking in Mandarin, in classes, at work, and with my friends.

Emily Wilby waving a small Chinese flag in Tiananmen Square
Emily: "I think as well as studying the language you need to be interested and learning about the people, the culture and the history."

How would you say being able to speak Mandarin has benefitted you?
It has opened so many doors. I’ve met amazing people from all around the world and had such incredible experiences.

I did a six-month placement teaching Mandarin in Budapest as part of my Master’s and that definitely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t learnt Mandarin!

As well as all the travel and study opportunities, I have also learnt what it is like to be the outsider and feel different, to be somewhere completely foreign and to have to adapt to another culture.

Most of the time it is really fun and exciting, but it can also be hard, and I always keep that at the back of my mind whenever I meet people who are away from their home.

What would be your top tips for those studying Mandarin?
I think as well as studying the language you need to be interested and learning about the people, the culture and the history.

Read books by Chinese authors (in English or Chinese), go to concerts, watch Chinese movies, visit museums and, if you have the chance to, go to China, spend as much time as you can out and about interacting with people.

It is such an incredible country and no matter whether your Mandarin is beginner or fluent you can always learn something new.

What are you doing at the moment?
Figuring out what to do next! I would love to go back to Shanghai where there are some amazing work opportunities, but I'm also thinking about going to teacher’s college here in New Zealand. It’s a tricky time to be overseas and travelling, so it seems like a good idea to be here in New Zealand for a few years.