I am currently three years into a ten and a half year sentence in Shanghai, China. I first arrived in China on 1st June 2003, initially on a two-year contract, during which time my responsibilities would include setting up and establishing an office in Shanghai.

For someone who had spent eight years in China, my Mandarin was poor. I could string a few sentences together but that was it. I must admit, I did try with numerous private teachers but that would last a few sessions and I would either get bored, or was too busy doing other things to continue. But in actual fact, I was ignorant; I always thought that because my work never involved communicating in Chinese, that there would be no point learning it. I had a secretary and friends who were able to translate at any time, so why bother? How wrong was I? Especially when I look at my current surroundings…

When I first came to prison, I made it my priority to learn the language, not just to help me get by during my time here, but also after my release. I also wanted to use this opportunity to become conversant in Spanish, Japanese and Arabic. Here on the foreigners’ unit there are approximately 150 inmates from all over the world; from countries as diverse as Mongolia, Colombia, Iran and Cameroon, so learning or picking up basic phrases is not so difficult. Whilst many languages are spoken here, the universal languages (or most commonly spoken) are English and Chinese (or, in most cases, ‘Chinglish’ – this is the version where both English and Chinese are combined, which to a native can sound horrendous. Still, I sometimes find myself using phrases such as “me no like” or “you no speak”, which really does make me cringe… I will probably need elocution lessons on release).

When I started learning Chinese I would spend at least four hours a day writing Chinese characters. I would write and recite around thirty characters at least four times per day, and then try to make a sentence from each character. This was great; I was finally learning Mandarin, or so I thought.

After around 15 months it dawned on me that, whilst I could read and write around 400 characters, I could not actually speak the language which was really frustrating me. This was not of much use to communicate with people. At that point I realised that I should be spending more time speaking the language than reading or writing.

I have been lucky in the sense that there are two officers here who wish to learn and improve their English. I regularly meet with them and do a kind of language exchange whereby I help them to communicate better in English and improve my own conversational Mandarin in the process. These sessions have had a really positive effect in such a short time. This has also given me the courage to communicate more frequently with some of the Chinese-speaking inmates.

I believe that being able to speak the same language as one in four people on the planet will certainly open doors that would otherwise be closed, as would being able to speak other languages. People and countries need to communicate. In all honesty, I’ve done it the hard way in many aspects. I might not have ended up where I am had I been able to speak the language before, but that’s another story. Now I am at a stage where I am comfortable in the knowledge that I am learning something for which there is a demand, and improving myself in the process. I even find myself muttering a few Spanish phrases with the latinos here. I am also using basic Japanese and Arabic phrases too. I must admit that Japanese and Spanish are far easier to pick up than Mandarin, mainly because the Chinese language places a huge emphasis on tones and pronunciation, whereas Spanish and Japanese are more forgiving with how you sound.

My advice to everyone is this; the one thing that we all have in prison is time, so make use of it. When we are out, we are always too busy doing other things to learn, but that excuse has expired for the time being. We cannot change what has happened, but we can benefit from it, or at least take something positive out of it. I appreciate our surroundings vary, but we don’t need much to learn a language: a book, a pen, a dictionary (helpfully provided by Prisoners Abroad) and people to practise with. It might even take your mind off things that have been troubling you.

But before you start, you should ask yourself WHY you are learning. Is it because you want to communicate more easily during your time in prison, or do you see a future where the language you are learning might be required? Whatever your answer you should try and create a plan that will help you achieve these objectives. Your plan can also be used as a guide to see how far you have progressed. Why not start with a simple phrase a day? You could also try to find someone who wants to learn English and start a language exchange.

Whatever you decide to do, remember this; being in prison is about serving time for something that has happened in the past. It’s something that affects us and our families who suffer in our absence. It’s not something that most people are proud of, or something that we can change, but what we can do is learn from it and try to take something useful or positive out of it, because once those gates open for us (which they will), life goes on… So what are you waiting for?

For now, “adios”, “zai jian”, “sayonara” and “mas salaama”.

*name has been changed to protect identity

Being offered a lifeline can change everything. 

Prisoners Abroad translates human rights law into practical life-saving actions by providing prisoners access to vitamins and essential food, emergency medical care, freepost envelopes to keep in touch with home and books and magazines to help sustain mental health.