Learning Chinese

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.

 

 

Singing in a School for the Deaf

Recently I was lucky enough to spend a few days in a school for deaf children, and this is what I learned…

On my first day I was amazed to discover that first thing on a Monday morning was whole school singing. That’s not a typo for signing, I mean SINGING! I couldn’t imagine what it would be like, and couldn’t wait to get into the hall to find out….. They had the words up on an IWB (Interactive Whiteboard for the non-teachers reading this) and the headteacher led the children in a singing and signing session.

The singing helped the children with their pronunciation – the headteacher emphasised the vowel sounds and endings – and the signing helped with understanding. She also used visual phonics  to help the children understand which sound they should be making. Some of the songs were done more than once so that the children could practise particular sounds, and there was plenty of praise for those children who made an extra effort with their speech.

Before I arrived I had imagined that the school would be extremely quiet, but it is no more so (perhaps even less so) than a mainstream school. My biggest surprise was how much speech some of the children have.  Not all of them are profoundly deaf – many of them wear hearing aids or have cochlear implants and can access quite a lot of speech. Some of them spoke so clearly that had I seen them in a different context I would never have know that they were deaf. However, for some of the others, communication in English is difficult, even impossible, and so this is why BSL (British Sign Language) and SSE (Sign Supported English) are also used in the school.

Related posts: Deaf Awareness Week    Phonics in a School for the Deafxx