Age is Just a Number: Johnson’s Inspiring Adventure of Learning Mandarin in Later Years

Is a senior citizen capable of learning Mandarin from scratch or would it be silly to even try? I have seen people asking questions like: “As a 66 year old, would it make sense to learn Mandarin at this age?” As a Chinese teacher, I have something to say. This reminds me of one of my students in his 60s named David Johnson. Strictly speaking, he knows three languages.

David is from the United States and was a freelance photographer before turning 60. After celebrating his 60th birthday, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a film producer.

Movie Set

“You know what? I’ve always wanted to be a film producer since I was a child,” David told me, showing me some movie posters he collected when he was young. “I’m already sixty years old; time waits for no one, and I felt it was time to do something I love!”

As for why he chose Japan, he said that first, he was a fanatical fan of Sony products and really wanted to see the birthplace of such a giant company. Second, he was a true fan of monster movies and wanted to be involved in the control and production of monster movies like Godzilla.

The arrival of the new environment filled David with confidence, and he quickly adapted to his new role as a producer, embarking on his first career in the film industry. As his career progressed smoothly, he found time to focus on his personal life. However, to his surprise, although the people here were polite and courteous, they seemed to lack enthusiasm for socializing.

“I’m actually quite a sociable person and enjoy making friends, but during my time in Japan, I didn’t have many people to connect with,” David later lamented to me. “In their culture, it seems they put more emphasis on the boundaries between people.”

This made him feel lonely and lack companionship and support until he met Yanling, a woman from Qingdao, Shandong, China.

Yanling

Through a chance encounter on a film set, he met Yanling, a Chinese woman who came to Japan for work. Yanling’s openness and enthusiasm touched him, and she became his first true “friend” outside of work. They quickly formed a deep friendship.

“Yanling is over ten years younger than me, but it feels like we don’t have any generation gap between us. She’s a very sociable and opinionated person, and her presence makes me feel less lonely,” David recalled his impression of Yanling to me later on.

He found himself falling in love with Yanling. Although they could communicate their emotions through eye contact and gestures, the language barrier greatly troubled them. As two individuals in a foreign land, they could only communicate in broken Japanese. Soon, Yan Ling had to return to China due to visa issues, leaving David behind alone.

“That period was really painful. My film work was at a critical stage, and I couldn’t go to China to see Yanling. Similarly, due to visa issues, she couldn’t come to see me either!” he referred to that time as a period of longing for each other.

Gradually, cross-continental communication through screens was no longer enough to satisfy their growing feelings for each other. After careful consideration, David made a decision: he would secretly learn Chinese and surprise Yanling by expressing his feelings when he went to China. So he contacted me, and after learning about his situation, I devised a plan to address his challenges and concerns.

Based on David’s schedule, I developed a monthly learning plan. As a film producer, David had an irregular work schedule. A well-structured learning plan would help him make the most of his free time and establish a solid foundation for long-term Mandarin learning.

David expressed a desire for his spoken Chinese to sound more natural, so he prioritized tones in the initial stages. Chinese tones presents a greater challenge compared to English and Japanese. Regular 1-to-1 classes allows David to receive timely feedback, enabling him to promptly correct any pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary errors while receiving advice and support.

Our live online sessions provided him with a conducive language environment and practice opportunities, including dialogue exercises, oral expression, listening training, and even reading comprehension, simulating daily life communications with native Chinese speakers.

On the cultural level, I shared interesting videos about variety shows, TV dramas, and short videos to expose him to Chinese culture, deepening his understanding and knowledge of China. This supplemented his cultural background for pursuing love in China and gave him a deeper understanding of the land where Yanling grew up.

During the day, David continued his busy work as a film producer, and at night, he devoted his precious time to learning Chinese. Two years later, as the film project came to an end, he embarked on his journey to China. His learning of Chinese during his time in Japan greatly improved his oral proficiency, eliminating the language barrier between him and Yanling. His efforts deeply moved Yanling, and she agreed to be with him, promising to return to the United States together to settle in Tennessee.

Tennessee

David and Yanling quickly settled down in the United States. Recently, I asked David a specific question, “What do you think is the greatest benefit of learning Chinese for you?”

“The greatest benefit is definitely winning Yanling’s heart. Being with her makes me feel younger and more alive!” David replied without hesitation. “Thanks to learning Chinese, my brain feels more active. Yanling says I won’t suffer from dementia in the later years!”

Seeing how fulfilled he is in both his career and love life genuinely brings me joy as well. I asked: “Now that Yan Ling has also settled in the United States with you, do you have any plans to come back to China in the future?”

“Of course, teacher! I still have a long way to go in learning Chinese,” David exclaimed excitedly. “And the new film project I’m currently involved in is in China. In the future, I will definitely be shuttling between China and the United States. Another reason is that Yanling wants to see her folks back in China!”

David's studio

In addition to deepening his relationship with Yanling, there were also tangible economic benefits for David. Currently, the film industry in China is flourishing. With his understanding of Chinese, combined with the success of his previous work, David has gained recognition in China. There will be more film-related work for him to be carried out in China in the future.

If you’re interested in the Chinese lessons David participated in, feel free to reach out to me and get a free 1-to-1 trial Mandarin class with me!

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