Tag Archives: Learning Mandarin

Urgent Crash Course in Mandarin Required.


The Chinese do NOT speak English.  I suppose this should not have come as a surprise since the demand for English teachers in China easily outstrips the demands of other countries.   Maybe I was lulled into a false sense of security after effortlessly negotiating the hurdles of my lack of knowledge of Malayalam in Kerala; there was always someone in the vicinity whose English vocabulary just about stretched far enough to overcome the language barrier.  Not so in China as I found out on my second day in the country…

An afternoon hike on a hill overlooking the town started off pleasantly enough.  There were six of us (mostly recently arrived teachers), chaperoned by Eddie and Klaus, two guys from the office who had taken it upon themselves to familiarise the newcomers with the highlights of Hangzhou.  We strolled along the manicured lanes and walkways chiselled in the side of the hill to make the climb easier and the experience more palatable for the Chinese weekend amblers.  Personally, I was expecting something a little more strenuous from a hike up a hill, and whereas everyone was huffing and puffing like the three little pigs (especially the younger ones), I kept ahead of the rest, not a bit out of breath!

The sights were indeed amazing:  views over the famous West Lake, the Hangzhou skyline dissolving in the mist, the rocky outcrop at the summit a picture perfect location for a wedding shoot,  the ancient Boachu pagoda towering over the treetops.

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It was somewhere at this point that things started going distinctly wrong.  All being adults we had not thought it necessary to exchange contact numbers; surely we were not going to go off in all directions like little, unruly kids…  But I lingered just a little longer than expected to take more photographs than the rest so that by the time I ended up at the famous Pagoda, there was no one else in sight. Was I ahead of the group, or had I fallen behind?  I hung around just for a while, but as dusk was hinting its presence and the moon began to glow more brightly against the darkening sky, I felt it prudent to venture to the exit in the hope that I would meet the others there.   But which exit indeed?  Not an English word in sight, it looked all Chinese to me… Not sure which way to head, I took the most obvious and easiest route: straight down, of course after checking with a friendly Chinese couple that I would indeed end up at an exit.

Where was I staying, they enquired.  Unfortunately, the name of my hotel sounded gobbledegook to them, even though I pronounced it as it was spelled in English…  ‘Hanting?  Hanting…’ Helpful Chinese Man With Little English mused.   I duly showed him the spelling on my phone, which did not seem to shed any more light on the matter…  He sent his wife off  to a nearby store in search of a Chinaman Who Knew A Little More English.  In no time at all, she rushed back, gleefully shouting ‘Ghanting!!’  Well, how was I supposed to know that the ‘h’ had acquired a guttural sound!!

Did I have the address of the hotel, Helpful Chinese Man With Little English prompted.  I really did not want them to go out of their way, they had been very kind so far,  and said I was happy for them to show me the way to the metro.  From there I could work out where I was staying;  I had used the metro the night before and vaguely remembered the name of the station.  After some insisting, I recalled that P in the London Office had indeed sent me the address of the hotel.   Helpful Chinese Man With Little English studied my phone intently, making head nor tail of the English letters, nor understanding the address when I read it out.  But Wulin Road rang a bell.  So when we crossed Wulin Road on our way to the metro,  Helpful Chinese Man With Little English decided to accompany me to the hotel, which should have been quite close…  But walking down the road, I sensed something was amiss… This did not look like the road of my hotel.  This road was busy, flash with expensive shops and unlike the drab, dreary, grey road where us poor teachers stayed in cheap hotels… And indeed, when we reached the hotel, it was the wrong one.  Same chain, but different location…  Let’s face it, I was picked up at the airport and only needed an address to put on my landing card.  So did it really matter that P in the London Office had given me the wrong address???  So there I was in the midst of Hangzhou, without the address of my hotel, no contact phone numbers, and when I finally hit a WiFi spot, the only person I could reach, did not answer her phone…

Helpful Chinese Man With Little English dutifully accompanied me all the way to the metro, another mile or so, with wife and daughter in tow.  He kept on reassuring me that they were going in that direction anyway, and also needed the metro.  But when I finally arrived and bought my ticket after counting the number of stops (I was convinced the number seven played some part in my return on the metro the night before), I did not see them get their tickets, nor board a train…

I made it back in one piece and the first thing I did in the hotel was grab one of their cards, with the address on it IN CHINESE….  And the flat I live in now???  I have taken a photograph of the front of the building with the name both in English and Chinese.  I learnt my lesson and do not fancy a repeat experience.  I shall persevere with learning some USEFUL Chinese words and steadily add to my Chinese business card collection!!  Some lessons are learnt the hard way….



Unlocking the secrets of Mandarin


I thought I’d get a head start this time and master the rudiments of the Chinese language before my planned arrival in Hangzhou in mid-February.  ‘Planned arrival’, indeed!  Although my contract stipulates I should be there ready to teach on 22nd February, the wheels of Chinese bureaucracy grind very slowly and at the moment it looks likely I will miss the start of the new term…  Still, miracles are not unheard of and I remain optimistic.

It’s been a while since I have attempted to pick up a new language as I can hardly count my half-hearted attempt at learning a few essential words of Malayalam, the language of Kerala.  Once I knew how to avoid milky and sugary tea, and where to find the spices to cook a decent curry, the need to add to my limited vocabulary seemed ‘de trop’.  I survived on pidgin English (the Indians’, not mine), supplemented with body language and hand gestures, stabs in the dark and finding someone who actually spoke proper English.  It worked rather well as most people were more keen to improve their English than I was to acquire their language.    But having a few weeks to fill before moving to China has inspired me to do  things differently this time round and to at least learn a few useful expressions and words; if not to speak them, then at least to be able to read or understand them.

Where to start?  The internet is awash with websites plying free Chinese lessons, so which one to choose?  Having established that Mandarin was the one to plump for,  I went surfing.  I discovered a pretty sensible website that offered useful phrases, written in Pinyin, which is a widely-used system of writing Mandarin Chinese relying on the Latin alphabet and making pronunciation of Mandarin words almost achievable for non-Chinese mortals – that is if you ignore the importance of tones….  But I also took advice from people in the know, such as someone who studied Mandarin at university.  She recommended a different website as a starting point, a website that firmly adheres to teaching me proper Mandarin, with pictures and Chinese characters and refrains from explaining the importance of the four (or is it five) different tones of each symbol denoting an entirely different word.   Pinyin is so for wimps… It certainly seemed a good introduction to the real Chinese I will be faced with in China.

After 72 hours of hard slog I have achieved the following: 15 words have firmly penetrated my long term memory, some of them totally irrelevant to my needs!  Will I require the words ‘wrap’ and ‘horse’ on my arrival? I am more likely to be unwrapping rather than wrapping, and will definitely not make my entrance to the country on horseback, nor need to ride a horse to my place of residence!!   And if I am beginning to recognise a sprinkling of Chinese characters and pictures, the accompanying sounds elude me each time…  apart from maybe ‘nihao’ – the Chinese greeting, which roughly translate as ‘you well?’  And this is when the logic of learning pointless words suddenly becomes apparent as more ‘complex’ Chinese symbols are made up of other, simpler symbols which on their own have a totally different and unrelated meaning…

Or is there some logic indeed??  I am happy to buy into the notion that adding a child to a woman indeed blends into a ‘good’ thing and since the Americans blurred the difference between ‘good’ and ‘well’, a Chinese hello can easily be interpreted as ‘You good?’ (US) or  as ‘You well?’ (proper English…).   Applying a measure of Pinyin reveals that NiHao consists of Ni (you) + Hao (good/well) and indeed refers to the pleasantries exchanged when people bump into each other  and merely enquire about each other’s good health.

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I am, however, more intrigued about what is implied by combining the symbols of woman and horse into ‘mother’.  Add to this that the only difference between a mother and a horse lies in the intonation applied to the word: ‘ma’, it is hard to escape the feeling there must be a link… somewhere…     And indeed, a little exploration of the Chinese Horoscope unearths the following about the horse: Serving man in war, agriculture, productivity, mobility, development of all kinds, horse is considered to be one of the largest contributors to the enhancement of civilization.  Just like women then!!  And mothers???  Well, they are women saddled with the burden of having to learn to multi-task, or is this just the modern word for ‘working like a horse’?

mother chinese

Although I do not wish to miss out on the fun of learning a language that relies on pictures rather than letter sequences, and has no affinity to the more familiar (to me)  Germanic and Romance based languages of Europe, and quite frankly is all Greek and Double Dutch to me…  I could just opt for the ‘point and shoot’ method.  All I really need is to install an app on my phone and iPad, take a picture of the secret code and press a button to unlock the mystery… A translation in English at my fingertips!!  And it already exists!

Now that I have resolved the issue with the written language, I will just have to get an ear for the Chinese sounds and tones, learn to imitate them and interpret them…  Piece of cake, I am sure…  But it will certainly give me a proper taste of what my little learners will be going through as well!