As readers of this blog will know, I love learning new things. Last summer I spotted an advert for a course in Chinese for primary school teachers, and as MFL (modern foreign languages) is my specialist subject, I decided to sign up. Throwing myself in at the deep end, I promised my new school that I would set up a lunchtime Chinese club, so I had to make sure I really did learn some!
I must confess, I was a bit worried. I mean – Chinese is really difficult, right? It’s doesn’t even have an alphabet, just thousands of characters. But it actually turned out to be a lot easier than I imagined. Obviously, it takes years to learn to speak a language fluently, so I have only learnt the basics, but this is what I discovered:
– It’s a subject-verb-object language, so the word order is the same as English. This already makes it easier than some languages.
– The verbs don’t conjugate (i.e. there are no different endings depending on who is doing it – like he lives, they live in English, or il habite, ils habitent in French.
– There are no articles (English has ‘a’ and ‘the’; French has un, une, des, le, la and les; Spanish has un, una, unos, unas, el, la, los and las; Chinese has nothing)
– There are no tenses. In Chinese, the verb remains exactly the same and you know whether it’s past, present or future from the context.
This simplicity actually makes it ideal for primary school children to learn.
Like any language, it does have its peculiarities and difficulties, such as the tones (the way your voice goes up or down for certain words) but this is no more challenging than getting children to understand the concept of nouns having genders (Chinese doesn’t have those) or that ‘you are’ might be ‘tu es’ but might be ‘vous êtes’ depending on who and/or how many people you are talking to.
Of course the characters are tricky but the children in my club really enjoy drawing and practising them, and they have the advantage that children are not influenced by how the word is written, so in general their pronunciation is better right from the start. The fact that the language isn’t written with an English alphabet doesn’t faze them at all. (In fact, I also run an Ancient Greek club and the children there are also fascinated by the fact that language can be written using different symbols.) We all enjoy making up little stories to help remember the characters. On the course I did, we learned a little about how the characters are made up, with radicals giving an indication of meaning and a phonetic element indicating pronunciation.
And there is far more vocabulary in some topic areas. For example, English has mum, dad, brother, sister, grandma, granddad, while Chinese has different words depending on whether it’s an older or younger brother, a maternal or paternal grandmother etc. But for the moment the primary aged children I am teaching only need to learn the ones they require for their own family.
The children and I are really enjoying learning together, and although I will never be fluent in Mandarin, you never know – one of the children I am teaching may be inspired to study it further and become fluent in the future.