Setting off in the morning, who would have guessed that only hours later I would be singing Happy Birthday to you in Chinese with a group of near strangers (and it wasn’t even anyone’s birthday).
The occasion? A lunch-time taster course in Mandarin. Why? Out of curiosity (not least to discover, how much Chinese is it possible to learn in an hour?)
Mr. Jin, our teacher, opened the session in English, asking our names and putting us at ease, before enquiring what we hoped to find out from the course.
Most wanted to discover more about this tonal language: Mandarin Chinese. One student was curious how a single word in Chinese could mean four different things; another was weighing up which of the two – Vietnamese or Chinese – to learn.
Mr. Jin explained that Chinese Pinyin (literally: ‘spell sound’) is used to transcribe the phonetic equivalent of the Chinese pictographs and ideographs into Roman script. With that, our teacher was off, baton in hand, tapping along a row of consonants, projected from his computer onto the white screen in front of us. We intoned after him:
bo— po— mo— fo— de— te— ne— le— ……
A few consonants, only, seemed to be markedly different from the English, such as ‘x’, pronounced as if telling someone to hush: shhh!
Shortly afterwards, we were racing through vowel sounds, their appearance (ɑ, o, e, i, u, ü) familiar to an English speaker. Encouraged to form a more rounded ‘o’ with our mouth, or to project forward an ‘ɑ’, pitching it slightly higher than in English, we moved from single vowels, to combinations – such as ‘ɑi’, ‘ɑo’, ‘ei’– to clusters of three – ‘iɑo’, ‘iou’, ‘uɑi’.
After that brief run-through, we could utter one of our first words: ‘xiè xiè’ – thank you.
Repeating and copying our teacher’s intonation to reinforce the sounds led naturally to an explanation of the four tones in Mandarin. There is a flat tone, such as ‘mā’, which means mother or mum. ‘Ma’ with a rising intonation ‘má’ – hemp. ‘Ma’ said in a tone that swoops and rises ‘mǎ’- horse, and ‘ma’ with an abrupt downward trajectory ‘mà’ – means to blame or swear.
For one word to have different meanings, depending on how you say it, isn’t so different from the multiple meanings for a single sound pronounced, if not spelt, the same way in English. (“C”, see, sea, or See what I mean?)
Here our teacher began to demonstrate how to write an ideograph – Chinese characters on the whiteboard using a pen. The strokes followed a set order: from left to right, then top to bottom, he said, writing out a couple of words.
Now it was time to read a few sentences typed in Chinese, and transcribed into Pinyin, from a handout.
We practised how to respond to the question, ‘What is your name?’ remembering to place our surnames first.
Minutes later, we were telling each other which country we were from, the country’s name, just discernible in the sound, such as ‘yìdàlì’ – Italy.
Buoyed up with this new-found knowledge, it no longer seemed so improbable to be sitting in a group of near strangers, singing as discordantly in Mandarin as my own language, the notes of Happy Birthday to You.
Mandarin Chinese no longer felt so far out of reach, either. At the end of a 10-week course, attending for two-hours a week, students could learn around 150 ideographs, for example.
So, how much is it possible to learn in an hour? Plenty, with a teacher that knows how to engage students, has the experience to reinforce core skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, and finishes a session on a high note(s), leaving students eager to learn more.
Chinese for Beginners – Starting 8thOctober 2018. Enrolment for the Autumn Term is now open. For timetables and how to apply: Short Language Courses – Autumn 2018
For availability of other languages: Learn a Language