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My battle with Mandarin

Reshma Patil narrates her experience of learning Mandarin.

world Updated: Aug 22, 2008 23:32 IST
Reshma Patil

When I enrolled in a Mandarin course in Mumbai last May, the classroom had over a dozen students from college-age to a 50-plus businessman who often travelled to China.

We learnt to say ma for mother, which could also sound like horse. And we tried to avoid a slip of the tongue that turned teacher into a rat.

The official Chinese language’s four tones, no alphabet, and a basic requirement of 2,000 simplified characters just for literacy, scared students away till only three regulars (sometimes two including me) remained after a month. And yes, there is a fifth neutral tone too.

But over Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings at the Ruparel College in suburban Matunga, just the joy of stringing together a sentence in the language of the world’s most populous nation was a high.

To keep up, I crammed several nights and stared at Chinese characters pasted around my office cubicle.

The Mumbai course (Rs 12,000 – 30,000) — endorsed by the Consulate-General of China — was surprisingly superior to my Mandarin studies on the mainland at Rs 550 per hour. I switched tutors in Beijing twice, because the young collegians could not understand long English sentences or provide Mandarin equivalents of many English words. The China-trained Mumbai teachers broke our language barrier with stories about China, written and conversational tests and homework like the English essays of junior school.

It seemed tedious to learn to use Mandarin to book hotel rooms, travel by taxi, train or air, order food, go shopping, and visit a doctor. But in Beijing I was grateful for those Mandarin after-hours.

At banks, hotels and on the streets almost none speak English, not even the taxi drivers — you can’t believe Chinese propaganda. Paperwork in the ‘foreigners’ bureau of offices is in Chinese, but I can read only some characters.

I sign wire transfers and tax forms like an illiterate. My battle continues.