Science - October 13, 2005

Chinese is jaw breaking but fun

Learning to speak Chinese resembles speech training: making your nose tremble, opening your mouth or getting your tongue to roll. But having some Chinese comes in handy if you plan to visit the country for an internship for example. And learning the language is also a good way to get to know more about the culture.

Students did their best to get their tongue round the words at a course in Chinese that started recently at ISOW. ‘Say after me: ping guo,’ says Sun Ying. ‘You should feel the ping vibrate in your nose’. The students in her class start to laugh, but give it a try. After some repetitions everybody manages to pronounce the word for apple well. ‘And do you still remember the first words?’ asks Ying, pointing at the whiteboard. The students struggle again, ‘But I can understand what you say,’ says Ying encouragingly.

Today the lesson is about fruits. Ying writes their names on the whiteboard. When the word for grape appears to resemble the Spanish word puta, several students can’t help laughing. ‘I can’t ask for that in a supermarket,’ one remarks.

Ying teaches Mandarin, the official language of the People’s Republic of China. More specifically the students learn Pin Yin, a system that was developed to help people learning to speak Mandarin. ‘It’s also the key to learning to write the language, which is based on characters,’ explains Ying. ‘If you can manage Pin Yin, you can look up the signs in the dictionary yourself.’

Tongue rolls
Ying, a master’s student in Plant Sciences and board member of ISOW, started teaching Chinese after a request from a student. ‘He was planning to go to China and asked for help with learning the language. I wondered whether others would be interested too.’ They were: Ying got six reactions in total from Dutch and international students.

During the first lessons the students learned about the four intonations in Chinese, which give words that are written the same totally different meanings. Ying also covered greetings, and tongue rolls for making the s-sound for example. Another important aspect of Chinese is that you can’t half swallow the words or run them together, something the Dutch prime minister Balkenende is famous for in Dutch.

Practising the pronunciation is one of things Dutch student Kitty Gruijthuijsen likes most about learning Chinese. ‘It makes you more conscious of the movements you make with your mouth.’ The main reason why she signed up for the course is that she hopes to go to China for an internship in a few months time and wants to practice the language. ‘I also noticed that you get to learn about the country and its people by studying the language. Sometimes you can’t get your tongue around the words, but it feels great when you get it almost right.’ Kitty thinks it would be a good idea to introduce Chinese language lessons for a year in secondary school. ‘It’s more fun than learning French grammar or German cases.’

After more than two hours the class is over. ‘Try to practise the words when you’re in the supermarket for example,’ Ying advises. She has also learned something from teaching. ‘The students find the four tones difficult to manage, but that made me think about where I put my tongue when I speak Mandarin.’ / YdH