Notes: Lecturer in Conservation Science
I'm Sophie Williams, a lecturer in Conservation Science at Bangor University and Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden Course Director for Plant Conservation MSc, where I'm currently based in Yunnan, China.
What languages did you first learn?
Chinese is the first language I have really studied. I had always wanted a second language but had never managed to create the time to dedicate to learning. It’s really exciting to now combine my work with learning a language.
How do languages impact your job?
I only started learning Chinese a year ago, so I am far from fluent. Learning the basics of Chinese was on the advice from my previous manager at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. It was about a month before leaving for my first trip to China and I was going for a job interview. Knowing that dinners and toasting are important in Chinese culture, I prepared a small speech, with the help of a personal tutor before I left Edinburgh. The perfect occasion arose on my second night and I was able to say my three lines. I don’t know if the dinner party really understood what I said, but they were impressed that I had tried. And I got the job. This was the beginning of my journey into the Chinese language!
Where have you worked in the world?
My PhD research was based in Guatemala and I tried to pick up some Spanish. But I found it incredibly difficult and failed to retain more than the basics. I really don’t know why but I seem to be learning Chinese with much more ease than Spanish! I now spend six months a year in China and this gives me the time to immerse myself completely. Then I return to the UK giving me the space to revise and reflect on my experiences.
What is the impact of having some Chinese when working in China?
Eating together with colleagues is a regular event at work. It is satisfying to be able to join in the conversation, even just a little. It allows you to get to know your work mates more fully and build friendships, which are important for getting work done in China.
My aim is to be able to carry out interviews for my research without the help of a translator. I’m a long way off, but my work would benefit considerably if I could achieve this.
Do you have any tips for learning a language such as Chinese?
Always carry a pocket dictionary and don’t be scared to try out the few words you know. I started with learning to speak a few words and wrote down the Pinyin (the Latin form of the Chinese characters). Now I have moved onto learning the characters and I’m using a spaced-repetition software (called Anki, its online and free). This is a useful tool to help memorise characters. Last week I was in a park in Guangzhou city, I saw a man writing poetry on the pavement with a huge calligraphy brush and water. The characters disappeared quite quickly in the heat and then he started again. I’ve just bought some calligraphy brushes so I can practice writing on my patio at home. It won’t matter if I make mistakes if I’m using water!
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