Greetings from Hangzhou
My name is Gentile and I’m a Mandarin teacher currently living in Hangzhou. My husband is also a teacher and it was out of this passion for languages and education that our love for each other grew.
We have been recently married and currently we own and operate a language school in the beautiful city of Hangzhou together. Our school is unique in that it offers English courses to Chinese students and Mandarin classes for foreigners. I wanted to take some time today to talk about my experiences teaching Mandarin to foreigners. Perhaps these insights can help you if you’re also on this quest to learn Mandarin.
My Approach to Teaching Mandarin
It’s an interesting thing to be teaching your own language to foreigners. It really makes one stop and think, to be introspective and think about your own culture and language in a unique way. I began to ask myself “What is the best way to relate this language to foreigners?” Should I be using a professional focus? Or a humorous one? My first realization is that while foreigners studying Chinese may be fewer in number, actually they are far more persistent in their studies than their Chinese counterparts studying English.
I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s just because I’m teaching foreigners who are already living in China and therefore have so much more invested in the language.
The Challenges of a Tonal Language
The truth is that Mandarin is a very difficult language for foreigners to learn. The syntax is so different and even with the help of “pinyin” it is still hard to communicate the accurate pronunciation of the tones. For those of you that don’t know, Chinese has four tones: “ā”, “á”, “ǎ”, “à”, and the pronunciation rules into the figure below, where the red line demonstrates the rise and fall of the intonation of your voice when saying the word:
“Wǒ ài nǐ.” “③ ④ ③” “I love you.”
Generally speaking ② and ③ are relatively difficult to pronounce for foreign students. But actually it isn’t difficult to master individual syllables based on icons and teacher guidance. Like anything else the mastery of the 2nd and 3rd tone just takes practice, practice, practice!
In addition to the rules of these 4 tones there are also a lot of subtle rules , such as “a” (yi) and “no” (bu) and so on.
If you really want to understand the tones and how they work you really need the help of a native speaker (or just ask me).
Writing Chinese Characters
Many non-Chinese students living in China tend to be proficient in spoken Chinese, but then they know nothing about the characters and how to write them. Kanji is one of the world’s oldest unique texts. For Westerners, it is very difficult to understand and learn to how to write Chinese characters properly. However, once you start learning to write and you can understand the meaning behind the Chinese characters, you’ll find that the composition of Chinese characters is actually very interesting.
Each Chinese character has both a pictograph and a Phonogram and this is usually very interesting for students to learn. For example, did you know that the Chinese character “mountain” and “wood” originate from a pictograph? You can see the similarity compared to the character used today from the pictures below:
I’d recommended that for students starting to learn Mandarin, the best thing they can do is really try to understand the Chinese characters, this is after all the essence of Chinese language and culture.
And How About Chinese Grammar
Regarding grammar and syntax, many people feel that Mandarin is relatively simple, even my husband told me so, too. I guess when compared to English or French grammar with all of the changes in tenses it is actually not so hard for Westerners to pick-up quickly.
However, the difficulty lies in the diversification of Chinese semantics, often the same sentence can express a completely different meaning. For example: “能穿多少穿多少” (lit: Can wear more or less, wear more or less). In Chinese, this same sentence can be used to express “wear as much as you can”, or “wear as little as possible”. Same sentence, but completely different meanings (or as they say in Thailand “same, same, but different!”)
So in closing, learning Mandarin is a challenging task, but as JFK said when wanting to put a man on the moon, we should be doing these things not because they are easy but because they are difficult! So 加油! (jia you = add oil).
Zhou, Yindan (Gentile)
Shantz Language Services