CHL Student Buzz: Meet Jacob Wilkinson…

7th October 2021

Student, Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics and Bachelor of Asian Studies double degree, with a major in Mandarin

Sometimes, it takes only a moment to inspire one’s direction in life. When Jacob Wilkinson was in secondary school, he was amazed at the ease with which ANU alumni Kevin Rudd got up in public and spoke Mandarin. Jacob saw an interview between Kevin Rudd and a journalist from mainland China. As she asked him questions on complex issues of trade and international affairs, Kevin Rudd fluently responded with all kinds of advanced idioms and expressions, all without a moment’s hesitation. This was a turning point of sorts for Jacob, as it majorly fanned his interest in the Mandarin language.

"Everyone who learns Mandarin has a favourite idiom or phrase. One of my favourite phrases, that almost all of my Mandarin teachers have emphasised at some point or another, is the phrase 学而优则仕 xue er you ze shi, which means that ‘a good scholar can become an official’ or ‘he who excels in study can follow an official career’. I really like this phrase as it epitomises so many different aspects of Chinese culture—the emphasis on studying hard and merit and the respect Chinese society has for the civil service. My Mandarin teachers would use it to motivate my peers and me before exams!"

1. Tell us a bit about yourself—what you do currently and what you studied.

I am about to start a Master of Strategic Studies (Adv.), having just graduated with a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics and Bachelor of Asian Studies double degree, with a major in Mandarin. I sat my HSK 5 proficiency exam a few years ago and am looking to complete my HSK 6 final Mandarin proficiency exam in a few weeks.

This degree led me to participate in a number of fantastic opportunities. On top of studying Mandarin at ANU, I have spent roughly a year of my undergraduate learning Mandarin in China, studying at Fudan University and working at the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Guangzhou and in Taiwan studying at the National Taiwan University on a Huayu Enrichment Scholarship. I have also taken part in ANU study tours across India and Mongolia, looking at political dynamics and social issues, and self-study tours to Beijing and the regional town of Chengde.

While at ANU, my Mandarin skills allowed me to participate in a whole range of clubs and events. In 2018, I was an editor of my residential college’s Academic Journal, where I managed Mandarin language submissions. I was also an ambassador for the Enriching China Studies in Canberra Schools Project, run by the Association for Learning Mandarin in Australia, where I promoted the importance of learning Mandarin to high school students in Canberra. I was a Grand Finalist in the 2019 International Chinese Debating Elite Championship representing the ANU Chinese Debating Club, and later that year I spoke on the similarities between Dante’s Inferno and a Chinese idiom (酸甜苦辣 – suan tian ku la, or ‘the joys and sorrows of life’) in the ACYA 2019 Second Language Speech Competition.

2. What drew you to Mandarin?

I started studying Mandarin at secondary school after being gobsmacked by the ease with which ANU alumni Kevin Rudd would get up in public and speak Mandarin. On one occasion, I saw an interview between Kevin Rudd and a journalist from mainland China. She was asking him questions on complex issues of trade and international affairs. Without a moment’s hesitation he was able to fluently respond with all kinds of advanced idioms and expressions, which had me completely captivated.

3. What were your top 3 favourite things about your language program?

First, the support from the teachers and tutors has been superb. They have always been incredibly supportive and willing to assist with any questions or difficulties studying the language. The teachers often try and conduct as much of the class as possible in Mandarin, which really allows you to tune your ear to the four tones and other nuances in the language.

Second, the opportunities to study and use my Mandarin in a practical way overseas in country has been really beneficial to my language development. I have spent over a year in China since starting at ANU, and my Mandarin abilities have certainly enriched my capacity to engage with locals in country.

Third, the cohort size, especially in the more advanced Mandarin courses, means that you get a lot of time to get to know others studying Chinese and practice your Chinese with them.

4. Can you name 3 reasons for people to study Mandarin?

It is great to be able to use your Mandarin skills to engage with international students and members of the enormous Chinese diaspora in Australia. There is no better way to impress your friends than to take them out to eat dumplings in Dickson, only to start conversing with the waiter in Chinese.

Travelling in-country to China (especially before COVID) was always exciting, for it provided an opportunity to meet people from a completely different culture and learn about an entirely different history and people.

I think Allan Gyngell summed it up best when he said in Australian Foreign Affairs, “There is no Australian future—sunlit or shadowed—in which China will not be central.” Many students at ANU want to one day move into the Public Service or work for companies in the private sector that operate across Asia, and speaking Mandarin in this increasingly globalised world would certainly not hinder your job prospects!

5. Can you share a fascinating/fun fact about Mandarin/something you find particularly incredible about the language?

My Mandarin skills have absolutely enriched my travels and study in China. Between November 2019 and November 2020 I was working at the Australian Chamber of Commerce in South China. By day, I was conducting industry and policy research in Mandarin, conversing with locally based colleagues, organising events and seminars for members and engaging with board members on a range of issues. After work, however, my Mandarin abilities allowed me to accompany a friend’s Dad, who worked in Guangzhou, to dinners and functions. At these events, I would meet his friends and colleagues from business and government. This experience was invaluable from a cultural perspective, for I was learning about business practices and cultural customs. On one occasion, I witnessed two fully grown men literally grapple with each other to ensure that, out of extreme modesty, the other would have the privilege of sitting next to the dignitary at the table. This is something that classroom learning would never be able to explain adequately, and it is why I am grateful for these opportunities through the College of Asia & the Pacific to travel abroad and engage with locals in this way.

6. Can you share one fascinating or fun fact about Mandarin, or something you find particularly incredible about the language?

When I was travelling through the rural Fujian province, in the south of China, one thing that had me really fascinated was how diverse the dialects were. By travelling a few hours in one direction or another, further inland or further down the coast, you would be met with a completely different group of accents, dialects and cultural practices, which is naturally different to anything one can experience in the West. It seemed that there were more cultural and linguistic differences between two towns in China an hour apart from each other than there were between Canberra and the Scottish Hebrides!

Everyone who learns Mandarin has a favourite idiom or phrase. One of my favourite phrases, that almost all of my Mandarin teachers have emphasised at some point or another, is the phrase 学而优则仕 xue er you ze shi, which means that ‘a good scholar can become an official’ or ‘he who excels in study can follow an official career’. I really like this phrase as it epitomises so many different aspects of Chinese culture—the emphasis on studying hard and merit and the respect Chinese society has for the civil service. My Mandarin teachers would use it to motivate my peers and me before exams

7. What are your future plans with respect to Mandarin or any other language?

I will be sitting some further proficiencies exams in the hope that once COVID has resolved itself, I will be able to return to China to continue working, engaging with locals and learning the language in-country. I hope to one day use these skills in either the public sector at a government department, or in the private sector engaging in commerce across China and the Asia Pacific.

8. Anything else you’d like to share? An interesting anecdote about your study of the language perhaps?

I would just emphasise that there are a lot of opportunities even just at ANU (which have taken on new importance during COVID) that still make learning Chinese enjoyable and worthwhile. I think of the Chinese-speaking competitions, debates and social clubs available to anyone learning Mandarin to participate in. There was nothing more enjoyable than finishing a rigorous debate in Mandarin on a Tuesday night, only to go and enjoy a big bowl of hotpot with friends (both local and international students) afterwards.

One thing that has always fascinated me is that regardless of how many times you go to China, the locals seem to always be shocked when you speak Mandarin. Whilst this can be really disheartening at first, as they sometimes struggle to understand what you are saying, it very quickly becomes clear that it isn’t your thick Australian accent that is undermining your communication. Instead, it is often their own disbelief that a Westerner in, for example, a rural Chinese town can speak Chinese at all. On this note, I would emphasise that when students at ANU studying Mandarin do go to China, they try and get away from the big cities along the coast and venture inland to some great cities such as Chengdu and Guilin, or even smaller towns in regional areas. Travelling to these kinds of places with Chinese friends allows you to really immerse yourself in Chinese culture and, thus, it is really worthwhile. It is only through this kind of intense exposure to the language that dramatic improvements will be made in your own language abilities.

Are you interested in learning Mandarin Chinese to enhance your career prospects, just like Jacob has done? Don’t know where to start? Enquire now!

For program administration and Academic advice please contact the CHL Education Support team on education.chl@anu.edu.au.

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