It's All Chinese To Me...
I surrepticiously flick through the brightly coloured pages of the textbook before me in anticipation. And promptly choke, as a cloud of dust, accumulated over months of neglect on my shelf, is disturbed.
I go for what, in my head, is a super-confident, 100 mega watt, Hollywood smile, to mask the panicked fluttering in my stomach. In reality, the image I project translates to a nervous baring of teeth, accompanied by a deer-in-the-headlights expression. Attractive.
“How do we say ‘I want to buy a return ticket from Durham to London’?”
“Umm- Wo…yao…yi…zhong- errr -lai…hui piao…”
The agonizingly stilted tirade stops mid-flow as the dreaded blankness strikes.
What’s the word for “from”? What is it? What is it? Think OctoberPoppy, think! I know your brain has been taxed immeasurably through lolling around on the sofa all day watching back-to-back episodes of “Lassie”, but come on! Think!
I glance down at the jumble of notes scrawled illegibly over several tattered pieces of paper. At the dull grey surface of the desk, as though the answer will suddenly be revealed. The expectant silence from both teacher and class yawns unbearably. The tension is notching up steadily on my spine. This is painful, it really is. But then, just as I’m beginning to despair…
It is Thursday evening, and it’s just gone half past six, which means that I’m at my weekly Mandarin class at the Language Centre. Like many other Freshers-to-be, over the summer I was inundated with a sizeable wadge of glossy pamphlets and pieces of paper advocating all the exciting, novel things I could get involved with at university. And so I rolled up in October, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to get involved with anything and everything. Choir? Sure. French society? Great. Debating? Ok. Beginner’s Mandarin? Why not? After all, surely it would just be learning the basics- greetings; what I like to eat for breakfast; the numbers from 1 to 10; describing the characteristics of Fido, my utterly fictional dog…generally, the Mandarin equivalent of Year Seven French.
I could not have been more wrong.
The lessons are two hours in duration, decidedly intense and swiftly paced, moving from familiarising oneself with the four tones to constructing full sentences in a matter of weeks. In short, anything but basic. After a day full of lectures, it can be a real effort to sustain concentration and remain sufficiently on the ball to untangle a language which displays very little correspondence whatsoever to ours: the syntax, vocabulary and even thought process are completely different. When you consider that we’re learning Hanyu Pinyin (the romanized version of Mandarin) and haven’t yet progressed onto learning characters, the mountain that we face to attaining fluency seems almost insurmountable. Every week, a collective sigh of relief is exhaled from the class as the teacher pronounces midway through the lesson “xiu xi”- break. We have watched as people have successively dropped out and the class number has steadily dwindled over the weeks. One thing is certain: the class is a real challenge. Priced at over £100 for two terms the course doesn’t come cheap, either. So has it been worth it?
In an age where a degree is no longer enough and prospective employers are looking for something distinctive from their applicants, Mandarin could just give you the edge. I’m sure there’s no need to mention that, with the rapid relocation of industry to the Orient, an economy which is already the fourth largest in the world and showing no sign of stopping and a phenomenal population of over 1,300 000 000 Chinese, a qualification in Mandarin could well prove to be a very useful asset. It was only the other month that The Times featured a week of China- themed supplements, highlighting the growing need for a Western comprehension of the East. The lessons are well organised and you truly get what you pay for: two hours of direct interaction and communication- something which you can’t just teach yourself from a book or CD. The lessons are not only useful, but, moreover, they are rewarding, with an unrivalled sense of personal satisfaction at finally getting something difficult right. It’s not easy; the classes can be frustrating and demanding, requiring dedication and perseverance.
Will I be signing up next year?