Several factors make learning Chinese a considerably more formidable task than learning another Germanic or Romance languages. Studying a foreign language is an excellent way for English and other language teachers to improve their own teaching. It also forces you into the role of a student so you can experience first hand the problems, difficulties and challenges your EFL learners face in your classes. Don't believe me? Then look at what happened to me …
Greeting the language learning students with a cheerful “Ni Hao” (Hello), our teacher, Shutzng Zhang begins the second class session of the Santiago de Cali University’s first – ever course in Mandarin. The spartan class room contains a map of China – in Chinese of course, tacked to one side wall, desks, a small table, and white board. There are two worksheets with the vocabulary of greetings written in Chinese characters on her desk. We greet the teacher in return. She wishes to be called “Susana” to spare us the tongue-twisting pronunciation of her Chinese first name. She speaks Spanish fairly well but her English is considerably more advanced. Explanations are done in Spanish to accommodate the class majority.
Practice with vowels follows:
a, o, e, i, u, u
There are 11 Spanish-speaking adult students in the first week of the group. Each in turn tries their hand at getting their pronunciation of vowels and greetings phrases to an acceptable level. Then some consonants follow:
n, t, h, m, x, j, z
As I’d expected, there are more than a few problems in teaching the tonal sounds of Mandarin to speakers of a non-tonal language. Yiu Wing Fung, a Chinese man, has more trouble than others in the group. “Why is he here”, I wonder?
A series of common greetings is written on the white board with the Spanish transcribed underneath. I instantly want to make up (or have the teacher make) flash cards to give me something to study and practice. I make a mental note to ask later. I do ask for and get copies of two key pages of the phrases written on the board. I’ll make flash cards from these later on. That’ll do for a start at least.
Next, the pronouns are written on the board in singular and plural. They’re remarkably similar:
Wu, ni, ta - then ta, ta, nin
There are differences in the pronunciation tones to distinguish them, but I produce my own little chart in singular and plural.
Then the other shoe drops. We get to the tones in earnest. It’s like doing the musical scales. High, low, short, long, up and down. There are going to be three tonal values I think; high, medium and low. I’m wrong. There are five: first tone, second tone, third tone, fourth tone and no tone. Each student runs through their “version” of the pronunciation. Sometimes our young teacher giggles. Other times she simply shakes her head and has the student try again. From the look on her face, we know our speech is bad. We’ll need a tape recording of the pronunciations. Without it there’s no way to check, practice and mimic the tonal sounds. It’s a time-consuming but necessary process.
How do you ask, “Do you love me?” one of the ladies asks. In response, the answer; “I love you” along with “I love you too.” Are written and practiced by the class next. The five ladies in the class are thrilled and amused, blushing as they practice the phrases. “This isn’t foe me”, I think, but decide to stick it out another couple of weeks. Maybe with some practice and help I’ll make some progress and develop more enthusiasm.
Some photocopied sheets with the words and phrases on them would help. So would a practice tape recording of the sounds, pronunciation and tones. The spoken language and its related listening comprehension development need more than the cursory “twice a week” class attendance sessions to practice. We need much more exposure than that to internalize elements of the language.
A description with drawings of how Chinese characters are derived proves more interesting for us. For example, the character “sun” plus the character “moon” means “light” or “illumination”. Now we’re getting somewhere.
… Continued in Part 2 …