Learn to speak Mandarin!

The world over, forward-looking parents are enrolling their children in Mandarin immersion programs. They are hiring tutors, some spend hour’s skyping with Chinese Language instructors in Beijing not to mention the iPhone applications aimed at making people into Mandarin speakers.

The need for workers with knowledge of foreign languages and cultures not only to market products to customers around the world but also to work effectively with foreign employees and employers has never been greater.

Richard Dowden in a book called, Africa, altered states, ordinary miracles, says that at one time coca cola was the only product that reached every corner of the continent. Now it is the Chinese and their products who reach everywhere.

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Me my Chinese Language teacher and classmates in 2014.

It is indisputable that the number of Chinese people coming into Zambia has increased greatly in the last ten years. Some estimates put the number at 80,000. This means the level of interaction between the local people and the Chinese has greatly increased. Most Chinese have conversational English skills but anyone who has had a lengthy interchange with one saw how difficult it can get to communicate effectively.  Sometimes the way they pronounce common English terminologies makes it hard to decipher the meaning.

One of the ways by which this Language barrier can be broken is to encourage the Chinese to improve their English skills but also by encouraging host communities to learn to speak Chinese. Investing our time and money to speak Chinese Language will enhance the quality of interaction and enhance business transactions.

Currently one of the most widely spoken Languages in the world with its users estimated at about 15 percent of the global population, Chinese, commonly referred to as Chinese Mandarin is the official Language of mainland China and Taiwan and is also one of the official Languages of Singapore and the United Nations.

In Zambia Mandarin Lessons are offered by  two institutions, the Confucius Institute at the University of Zambia and the Chinese International School located along Lagos Road in Rhodes Park.

What are some of the interesting aspects of this ancient and fascinating Language?

Mandarin is a tonal language. This means that the pitch of any syllable will affect the meaning conveyed. And since many Chinese characters have the same sound, the tones are what differentiate words from each other. There are four tones, named according to the rise and fall of the voice when pronouncing them. The first tone has a high even pitch. It is important to keep ones voice even, almost monotone, across the whole syllable when pronouncing the first tone. The second tone has a rising pitch and may be harder to master. In English we sometimes associate this rise in pitch with a question. The third tone has a falling then rising pitch. When pronounced clearly its ‘tonal’ dipping is very distinctive. The fourth tone starts out high but drops sharply to the bottom of the tonal range. English speakers usually associate this tone with an angry command.


Rehearsing a chinese song ‘dance of the youth’

Because Chinese Language does not use the Roman alphabet, Pinyin, a standard for romanizing the language was introduced in the 1950s. This was to help foreign learners of Mandarin to pronounce standard Chinese correctly. The first few Chinese lessons will focus on learning the tones and pinyin. For example the Chinese character for mother is written as 妈妈and the pinyin for this particular character is māma, the little line on top of the first ma indicates the tone, which in this case is the first, high even tone. Apart from mother the word ma might mean a number of things such as linen horse and the verb scold depending on the tone used. So just by saying ma in different tones you can ask the question, did mother scold the horse? (mā mà mă ma?). As observed from the sentence the first ma uses the first tone, the second uses the fourth tone and the third ma uses the third tone which falls and rises. After practicing pinyin with a number of verbs and nouns short sentences such as Hànyǔ bù tài nán (Chinese is not very difficult) will be introduced. Mastering the tones poses a challenge to non-tonal language speakers when learning Chinese but Chinese language teachers understand this so well and a considerable amount of time will be dedicated to learning and differentiating the four tones. This is very cardinal because using a different tone for a particular character will completely change the meaning conveyed. One could effectively end up saying I’m looking for my horse in place of I’m looking for my mother. A common advice for Chinese language students is that pinyin is not used much in China. Although some signs might be written in pinyin you should not expect the Chinese to understand pinyin as they would characters. After some pinyin practice Chinese language students are expected to start learning characters otherwise known as Hanzi.

There may be no way of predicting the sound and meaning of an unknown Chinese character with any degree of accuracy but this does not mean that there is no system behind the little ‘sticks’ at all. All the characters contain at least one of the component parts known as ‘radicals’ and almost all radicals have an element of assigned meaning. Looking at the character for the Chinese verb that means to eat (吃) otherwise pronounced as chī (noticed the line above for the first tone pronunciation), will reveal the radical called mouth on the left. It sure does appear like a mouth albeit with corners, which you will likely notice in most characters talking about food. These characters range from simple ones with a single stroke to complex ones with up to 13 strokes. This maybe where your Chinese lessons start to get challenging but even more fun. There are a number of ways through which one can practice to learn characters and online resources abound in this area. One that teaches characters in a very funny way is chineasy.com The character for rén which means person is written as (人). That surely appears like a standing guy except he has no hands. The pinyin  for follow is cóng written as (从) and appears like two people following each other. Now get another rén to sit on top of two companions and we have crowd (众) pronounced as zhòng.

Not all characters are actual pictographs that reflect the meaning of words but those that do reveal an interesting cultural aspect of the Chinese Language.blog

Another interesting facet of the Chinese language is the mandatory use of measure words known as classifiers. These may not necessarily be unique to Chinese because you see them in English too, for example a gaggle of geese, a shoal of fish a piece of cake and so on. In English they do not occur that much but are completely obligatory in Chinese when giving a number of nouns. You have to ensure that you get them in and right as there are a number of them. Different classifiers are used for a number of things. When you are talking about flat things such as sheets tickets and tables the classifier is Zhāng. Shuāng is used for things in pairs such as socks chopsticks and so on. Bĕn is used for books e.g.      Wǔ bĕn shū means five books.

Without a doubt all this pinyin, tones characters and classifiers might seem a little daunting in the early stages but this cannot be compared to the joy of being able to speak the Language.

Like Esther Tyldesley of Edinburg University put it, not only is Mandarin Chinese an intriguing and absorbing Language which can express both brutal frankness and extreme delicacy, it also brings us the chance to learn about a new and very different country and culture.

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