Olivia’s Cambridge Diary

Month one: my Chinese cohort


I’m hunched over my laptop punching in the key words and concepts that my professor is spewing at an unholy speed. Then he leaps up mid-sentence to announce we’re going to play a game. I glance at my neighbour who is equally startled, presuming this to be one of the many eccentric norms among Cambridge University professors.

Since starting my Education Masters in Second Language Research a month ago, we’ve blitzed through various topics. Today’s discussion on “interactionist perspectives of second language acquisition: input, interaction and output hypothesis” clearly hasn’t been stimulating enough, hence the need for a game to be played.

My professor announces: “As the overwhelming majority in this class are Chinese (or indeed Chinese speakers), I want you to get into ‘family groups’. We will have Chinese parents (natives), Chinese siblings (those with some Chinese language skills) and babies (those with zero Chinese). Afterwards you will share your observations and reflections of ‘baby talk’ with your colleagues.”

Luckily, I’m designated as a sibling, yet immediately find myself upgraded to translator as my Chinese classmates try to teach an American friend nearby about objects such as “Apple laptop”, “table” and “pen”.

They giggle as she contorts the words through her nose in tense, high-pitched tones. Recalling the initial weeks I spent grasping Chinese tones and characters, I’m pleased that I persevered with the language.

Up until this moment, this class of 2020 has felt linguistically and culturally dominated by Chinese mainlanders, so much so that even I – someone who has studied and worked in China, in addition to speaking the language – sometimes felt intimidated.

For the 2010/11 admission cycle, out of 2,038 Chinese undergraduate and postgraduate applicants, 251 took up the offer of a place at Cambridge. Fast forward to 2018/19 and the number of applicants from mainland China had increased to 3,465, with 364 getting a place at the university.

I’m impressed with how much my Chinese classmates have thrown themselves into our course. They already seem to be able to recite pages of sociolinguistics textbooks. And one of my Chinese course mates, Iris, who hopes to continue to a PhD here, told me her main reason for applying for this MPhil was that it’s heavily research-orientated. She went on: “I really, really, really, enjoy studying in the UK. The main reason is that I think the education system is very nice, and the staff at the university are so nice to students. Also, because of the high level of academic performance of the faculty, I find I’m learning a lot”.

Admittedly, being surrounded by so many students from China has also consolidated my view that China is aggressively affirming itself in each and every corner of the world.

But the lack of successful socialisation of Chinese students in the UK is worrying too. Iris explained her situation to me: “I feel a bit lonely here actually. I don’t really want to hang out with Chinese students all the time, and I do want to know people from different backgrounds. But when I am hanging out with non-Chinese students, I sometimes get really tired because I have to speak English all the time and try to understand different cultures, which is inevitable, I guess. I would prefer to stay in the UK or other countries a bit longer, probably for study and work, just to feel what it’s like. But I will eventually return to China, I suppose, as that’s home.”



UK-born Olivia has lived and worked in China and is studying for an MPhil in Second Language Research at Cambridge.

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