Why I am learning Chinese

17 March 2014

Earlier this month I welcomed more than 51,000 students to the University of Sydney. For some of them it is the first time they will be studying at University and hopefully it will be the start of a degree that will lead them towards a career they enjoy.

But I also hope that their connection with the University does not end there.

Ideally, the students I welcomed will continue to dip in and out of the University learning environment for the rest of their lives. Through our postgraduate courses, short courses at the Centre for Continuing Education or through our business dialogue programs, regardless of how they engage with us, learning should continue to be rekindled.

I have kept my own curiosity and desire for learning alive by immersing myself in the Chinese language. I first became attracted to the language because someone once challenged me to learn it on the basis that it was too difficult: I have been trying ever since to prove them wrong!

There are three things in particular that drew me to Chinese. First, there is much about the language that reminds me of poetry, my preferred literary form. It is economical in its structure and syntax. Chinese expresses ideas far more concisely than English, and with an elegant simplicity. That desire for simplicity turns my very English pattern of thought, with its multiple dependent clauses, on its head, and challenges me to re-express ideas with less complexity.

Second, like the concision of poetry, the economical character of the Chinese sentence leads to ambiguities that can be both amusing and revealing. Word play is built into the character of the language in a way that makes it almost a national sport. It is a language built for the teasing epigraph.

For me, a great example of this is the infamous poem'施氏食狮史'. It both epitomises the beauty of the Chinese language and the incredible challenge it offers. That is why I choose to take施 as my Chinese surname.

Third, I love the beauty of the Chinese script. There is a history behind every character. Reading and writing Chinese makes me feel in touch with not only a whole literary world, but also the story of a whole civilization.

As the saying goes 学习是永远跟随主人的宝物 (Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere), the insight I have gained about China will prove to be invaluable as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney. I am better able to communicate with my Chinese counterparts and I have a greater contextual understanding to really enjoy travelling around the fascinating country.

I hope the students I welcomedare as lucky as I have been to get the opportunity to pursue lifelong learning.

Dr Michael Spence is the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sydney.











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