Those of you who don’t know me or haven’t known me long will not realise that at the tender age of 57, I moved to Shanghai and went to university to learn Mandarin. Wasn‘t that a clever thing to do I hear you say…
This blogpost from 2015 fits under the ‘life’ part of my website so indulge me if you have time and get a taste of my first few weeks at school again. Learning Mandarin is a challenge at any age but now 5 years after this post was written, I still feel the anxiety and its still as hard now as it was then. Looking back now, it’s like you are running madly after that last train that is about to close it's doors and leave the station, and then it gets worse - a lot worse!
Shanghai Jiao Tong University 上海交通大学 March 2015
One of the buildings from the original school before being re-named to SHJT University
Week three has come to a close and I am wondering what happened to week one. The foundation of a language is obviously the bit you need to learn and learn well. But it has been roller coaster ride for just over three weeks with today being the first day where I feel like I am able to have a few hours off from study and perhaps draw breath and look around. Life currently for me is all about trying to stuff as much into my little brain as I possibly can without most of it falling straight out the back of my head - it’s true I swear! The intensive part of the course is obviously to throw as much at us that we can possibly manage and then load us up with homework to keep the stress levels high all evening and then let’s do a ’test’ in the morning shall we? I still am the dumbest kid in the class though but I am slowly managing to find a level where each session is not one of complete panic.
The teaching process is split into 3 parts. We have a ‘listening’ teacher, a character ‘writing’ teacher and an ‘oral’ spoken teacher. They all work from different books but at a similar level so that the content is spread across all three session types - 2 x 90minute sessions a day over 5 days. We are continually bombarded with a new words every day.
Pinyin is the phonetic system developed in the 50’s that they use to teach Mandarin by converting the pronounced sounds of Mandarin words into a format that can be written and understood using our western alphabet with the addition of four very distinctive tones. I must say I am in total admiration of the process so far and also very very grateful it exists!. We are taught a new word - e.g.. 你好 Nǐ hǎo, - this means 'Hello' in Mandarin - you good? - literally. The ‘tones’ that sit over the ‘i’ and the ‘a’ are how the pinyin word tells us how to pronounce it. I am sure you would have heard that you have to be very careful what words you use with what tones speaking Chinese. It is possible that one word might be spelt the same in Pinyin but will have different tones to identify how it is said and then a different Chinese character for each - generally. There are always exceptions to every rule. So the three daily learning dimensions are a new Chinese pinyin word, a Chinese character and an English meaning.
I sit here 3 weeks in, and I am amazed how much I have picked up and i just love some of the clever simplicity of the language. It identifies to me how hard English must be for a student. They have numbers 1-10. 11 is 10+1, 12 is 10+2 and so on, 35 is 3+10+5, 112 is 100+10+2. The days are 'day 1-7'. The months are 'months 1-12'. It is all very civilised and if you can count to ten you could quite easily nail the days weeks and months with a few lessons. Now actually pronouncing the first ten numbers correctly is where the challenge lies! I still cannot say more than a dozen simple phrases off the cuff but I can read over 50 characters now and may be able to read a simple children’s book soon! There would be 150 words in my vocabulary now that I am expected to learn (and retain) as fast as possible with about 100 being added each week.
So what is the hard bit? It's all hard. Having Koreans or Japanese students in your class adds a layer of pressure as they can write Chinese characters as they have them in their own language and just need to associate a new word (often similar) to a character but will have a good idea of the meaning of a sentence. The smartest kid in the class will set the pace as they answer the questions first. Students like me seldom get to answer correctly and if you don't understand, the class won't wait for you.
Let me tell you about day one. Apart from leaving my books at home and being late for my first class, all went well for about the first ten minutes. It was about the end of the first session that I had my first ‘what the f#@k have I done’ moment. Session 2 was mostly “How f@$#@*&! stupid was this coming to China thinking you could learn Mandarin!”. I got excited when I recognised a word or two I knew I may have heard before on my learners audio sessions (and sometimes it sounded like French words just to make things worse). But that steam roller just kept coming towards me.
The teachers write the Pinyin word on the board, and then the Chinese characters. I struggle with the 3 dimensions - hearing the word, translating the Pinyin word into English and then trying to write the character hurriedly in my books trying to conform with the correct stroke order convention and then rapidly responding to the teacher when asked a question. Mostly I sit there gaping like a fish out of water having missed the entire context of the sentence as I am rapidly taking notes am not able to answer anyway. There is much going on and the teachers are not standing up the front yapping away in English trust me. So you all you hear is Chinese with the occasional English word when some of us are obviously sitting there open mouthed in such a stupor that they feed us a translation. As we transitioned into week 3 we rarely have Pinyin words written on the board for the words we should recognise by a character. Your brain is in a frenzy trying to work out if that squiggle goes with that roof with a chimney and a moon and dots and strokes… or… Your brain is trying to assess the character and work out if you know what the word means (remember the comment about the four tones) and then you are expected to process the new words and their respective character as well. A couple of times I have just dropped the ball and could not take anymore in any more and sat in 'stunned mullet' mode waiting for the class to finish. Some students actually know the answers. Well that just makes me feel just great some days!
Last Friday after a particularly intensive double ‘writing’ morning, and the Mack truck sensation was subsiding, I was pleased to hear a couple of the ‘smart’ kids in the class - 20’s fresh out of uni - comment that “wow.. that was really hard today” In fact I was almost elated to hear that in reality. One guy, early 20’s, Swedish ex-pat engineering graduate says he finds it difficult having to absorb and then retain all the new information for verbal use quite quickly where in engineering, it was all mostly a mathematical problem solving process. So when I look around the class, Aussie, Kiwi, Thai, Venezuelan, Brazilian, Russian, Portuguese, British, Swedish, Spanish, German, American, Pakistani, Kazakstanian and Korean etc. The annoying thing for me was these mostly all young match-fit uni students, some specialising in language but most were learning Mandarin in their ‘second’ language. It was then I wished I had paid far more attention to learning French at secondary school!