Learning Mandarin Chinese

This January I was given the opportunity to take up Mandarin Chinese for 10 weeks, with the University of Cumbria, in conjunction with the Confucius Institute at UCLan. I began the course with a colleague in my department – both of us speak Spanish and French. The course is designed for MFL teachers, so we were expecting a fairly fast paced course, but nothing could have prepared us for what we have encountered in the last three classes!

Our classes are led by Feixia Yu (or Yu Feixia as they would say in Chinese), the Director of the UCLan Confucius Instutute and Paul Livesy, a fluent Chinese speaker and we are using the BBC Active Talk Mandarin Chinese book and CDs which I have found further materials from the BBC on their website:  resources available online and interactive BBC materials. Our classes last two hours on a Wednesday evening and we tend to do language for approximately two-thirds of the lesson, and then we are taught about Chinese Culture for the rest of the lesson.

So far we have covered basic greetings, numbers (which inevitably includes dates, months and years), pronunciation, nationalities and  countries and jobs.

The hardest thing by far with this language is the lack of cognates which have always been my crutch as a languages teacher. Through using similar words and plenty of mimes my students tend to get the gist of what is happening, but with Chinese, I rarely catch any cognates and often feel quite out of my depth as a learner! At least I get to be put in the position of a learner again as it is always useful to remember what it is like to be in a foreign language classroom and to not understand a thing.

Actually, the hardest thing about Mandarin Chinese has to be the pronunciation: it is made up of various tones, which are represented by accents on the vowels. With learning to speak Chinese we are not really focussed on learning any characters, as they do not tend to tell you how to pronounce the word – instead, we see the word written in pinyin (which is the word written in letters) and most letters are pronounced the same as English, except for these:

c – pronounced like ‘ts’

q – pronounced like ‘ch’

x – pronounced like ‘sh’

z – pronounced likde ‘ds’

and zh – pronounced like ‘dge’

This approximation of pronunciation comes from the BBC book, but is quite hard to do, especially as we have been taught that c, j and x all take a slightly different sound, depending upon the proceeding vowel. Oh, and we keep getting told to curl our tongues back too to help with correct pronunciation. Yikes.

As I briefly mentioned, Chinese has tones, which can affect the meaning of a word. There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese. The first tone is written with flat line above it, like on this ā, and is a high pitch, flat and steady tone. The second is a rising tone, and will be written á. The third is a falling then rising tone and is written ă and the fourth tone is a falling tone written à. A syllable without a tone is pronounced neutrally or without emphasis. confused yet? Try saying the following with the correct tones and play the ‘starter’ video on the BBC site to see if you were correct:

Nĭ hăo – hello

Nĭ hăo ma? – how are you?

Hĕn hăo – I’m very well.

Xièxie – thank you.

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