Learning Chinese (Mandarin)

Anyone that knows me reasonably well knows how enamored I am with Asian culture, it intrigues and fascinates me. By Asian I literally mean every Asian country aside from the Arabic/Indian ones. Their uniqueness is what draws me. Their cultures are quite distinct and odd to everyone looking in from the outside.

This fascination of mine began recently though, up until a few years ago all I knew about the Orient was Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. I had my own stereotypes about them though with reading and research a few of those have been dispelled. It all began with Memoirs of a Geisha (both the book and the movie), then I moved on to action movies which they are most well known for, dramas too and the odd soapie.  After a while I started trying Asian food, something that surprised my parents because when I was younger, they took my sister and I to a Chinese restaurant and all we ate was ice cream because we found the food to be too “weird”. Here in Gaborone I have found a Thai restaurant, a couple of Chinese restaurants and a Japanese restaurant and the mission is to try everything on the menu, yes everything! A mission that none of my friends want any part of!

So when I discovered the Confucious Institute in the University of Botswana, I did a little dance and swore I would find a way to do something, anything offered by the Institute. As luck would have it I found out that they offered Chinese language classes. For 840pula a level (440pula for students) you attend 2 hour lessons twice a week from 6-8pm to learn how to speak, read and write Mandarin. They offer 10 levels (beginners start on level 1) and each level takes 2/3+ months to complete. As part of the course you are required to attend a social event where you mingle and converse with Chinese people, you watch a Chinese movie (with subtitles) and learn a couple of Chinese songs. Those who maintain a grade of 70% and above are given the opportunity to go to China for a 2-4 week summer/winter camp where they can immerse themselves in the culture.  How could I resist?!

At the orientation session I was pleasantly surprised to see a range of people enrolled in the classes. From adults as old as 35-40 to first year University students. There was also a good balance of men and women. Since everyone is doing it out of their own free will they are all enthusiastic and motivated, it’s a great environment to learn in.

I have some experience in learning languages having learned Latin, Greek and French in high school so I felt I was sufficiently prepared to challenge myself with Mandarin, however, it is a whole different ball game! Latin, Greek and French have a similar structure and vocabulary since Latin and Greek were the foundation for most languages (French, Italian, English, Spanish etc). Mandarin on the other hand follows a different set of rules.

According to my vague understanding the language is divided into phonetics (how you say the word which follows the latin-alphabet system) and characters (which match syllables one by one) unlike in English where for the most part you write the word the way you say it. To my English trained brain this just seems odd and complex. Another difficulty is getting around the tones; when written in phonetics they look like french accents marks (ù,ǔ,ā,ò etc). Each mark represents a different tone and a change in tone changes the meaning of the word so you have to get it right! In African languages we have something similar though (i.e. in Chichewa “mtengo” can mean price or tree depending on the pronunciation).

Frankly I would have taken the opportunity to learn Korean, Japanese or any other Asian language given the chance, I don’t have a particular preference. Why am I learning Chinese? Honestly currently it’s a hobby but I hope it will eventually translate to something valuable for my career or life in general. It is also a “Challenge accepted” mission for me, I want to see if I can pick up a language and be fluent in it. My previous attempts always stop at a basic level and my foray into learning Setswana has been dismal at best.

Two lessons in so far and it’s quite challenging but it is so much fun! We do quite a bit of speaking in class and it feels a bit stupid when saying words especially when you get it wrong. Because we’re learning we still speak quite slow so when we hear our teacher speak at a normal speed, our brains go blank. Our teacher is a lovely lady by the name of Wang Qi…we just called her Melissa currently because her name is not easy to pronounce for us (in Mandarin “q” and “j” sound nothing like the English letters).

I’m quite excited though, my close friends should be prepared to deal with me blurting a lot of random words every now and then 🙂 I apologize in advance.

xiè xie! (Thankyou!)

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