Which languages did you come across in school? Was that your first taste of other languages?
At High School in Edinburgh I studied French, Latin and, in 5th and 6th year, Classical Greek. From an early age I had been exposed to both French and German during family holidays on the continent, during which my parents – both of them able to speak French and German – encouraged me and my brothers to learn vocabulary and simple phrases.
What made you choose Chinese as a language to study? Has it been difficult?
At the age of twelve I was taken to see an exhibition of Chinese Art in Edinburgh, and from that moment on Chinese culture, language and art captured my imagination.
When I was deciding what subject to study at university, it made sense to choose Chinese Studies, given my enthusiastic interest in all things Chinese.
Learning Chinese is not easy – at university, the first year in particular was hard work and very intensive, and a number of people dropped out of the course within the first couple of weeks.
Where did Chinese take you?
I studied for my BA at Durham University, in England, and a requirement of the course was to spend my second year at Renmin University in Beijing studying Chinese language. I was able to take full advantage of my time in China to travel extensively during the university vacations, for the most part on my own, which was challenging but meant I had to use Chinese all the time to communicate.
I spent the summer vacation between my third and fourth years in Taiwan, studying at the Mandarin Training Center of Taiwan National Normal University – a very different experience from my previous time in the PRC, which in the late 1980s was still relatively undeveloped. By contrast Taiwan was very modern, very busy, and obviously much more affluent. During my time in Taipei I shared a room in a Lutheran Church hostel with a native Taiwanese boy, so used Chinese every day.
On graduating from Durham University I returned to Beijing on a government scholarship for one year to study classical Chinese language and literature at Peking University, one of China's leading universities. On my return to the UK, I applied to train as a Minister in ministry of the Church of Scotland, but was offered a job in London on the China Desk of the Churches Commission on Mission, part of the then Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland. I worked there for two years liaising between Churches in Britain and Ireland, and the Church in China – both Protestant and Roman Catholic – before completing a research MA on Christianity in contemporary China and then returning to Edinburgh to train for Ministry.
Do languages still play a role in your life? In what way?
While studying for my BD (Bachelor of Divinity) at Edinburgh University, I specialised in Biblical Studies, which meant learning to read Hebrew, New Testament Greek, Aramaic and Syriac – a learning experience which has stood me in good stead in preparing sermons as a Parish Minister! My wife's family came originally from Prague, and I have learned Czech in order to be able to communicate with our family and friends in the Czech Republic. Our two sons have been raised to speak both Czech and English from birth, and when I was Minister of the Scots Kirk in Paris for four years, they attended local French schools and learned to speak French fluently – making them trilingual. I use Czech and French on a regular, even daily, basis, and Chinese is of great use in my role as Convener of the Scottish Churches China Group (SCCG) and Moderator of the China Forum of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), when I travel in China building up and maintaining good working relations with churches in China.
What tips do you have for anyone studying Chinese?
Persevere! It can be hard going at first to learn to write and speak a language in which the tone of each word determines its meaning, and for which the written language is so complicated and requires a lot of memorisation. It does get easier with time and practice, and the day will come when you realise that you have learned enough to read a newspaper, and to speak confidently. I have to add that Chinese grammar, at least, is much simpler than Czech, but like Chess, it takes only a short time to learn the basics, but a lifetime to master.
Would you recommend learning languages especially those which have the reputation of being difficult? Why?
I enjoy language learning and would always encourage people to learn other languages. Being able to speak the language of other countries and peoples not only allows for better communication, it is also a fantastic way to gain a deeper insight into their cultures and customs, in a way that would be impossible if we only spoke English. When so much of human life depends on good relationships, being able to speak the language opens doors to many new opportunities in every field, from industry and commerce to diplomacy and international relations, academic research and international bridge-building for peace.
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