Ni Hao

Posted on May 18, 2011
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As a very poor student of languages, I found this article about someone trying to learn basic conversational Mandarin in two days, instructive. From The Guardian

“In theory,” says language teacher Paul Noble, forming a steeple with his fingers in true professorial style, “you should learn Chinese today and tomorrow quicker than anyone has ever learned it on the planet.” In theory, because I’m the very first student to take his intensive two-day course in Mandarin, which he is teaching me with his wife, native speaker Kai-Ti Chou, in the basement of a north London art gallery. If their prototype course works as well as they are hoping, then two days from now I will, as the spiel on Noble’s website boasts, “have learned to speak Chinese the way it is really spoken”.

It’s a bold claim. Mandarin has a reputation as one of the hardestlanguages to learn. For one thing, it is tonal – each word has a variety of possible meanings, all dependent on the subtlest differences of pronunciation. A downwards, chastising inflection converts the word for “buy” into “sell”, while the incredulous falling and rising third tone transforms the word for “mother” into “horse”, and the same word, “ma“, used for horses and mothers, is appended to statements to transform them into questions, like a spoken piece of punctuation.

The idea that any language, let alone one so notoriously difficult, can be taught in just two days struck me first as laughable and later, when I realised that I would be the guinea pig, terrifying. I approached the first class expecting to find myself face-to-face with the language-learning world’s answer to Sue Sylvester from Glee, a megaphone-wielding, militaristic maniac forcing Chinese words into my head by rote until I curled up in a foetal position, wept blood and begged to go home.

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