Mandarin course not just for travellers

Eight students taking Mount's inaugural course in Chinese language

Repetition, repetition, repetition. From poring over pinyin to matching tones like a choir, familiarity with the concept and culture of Mandarin Chinese is important in professor Chuan Xu’s class. Phot:o Colin McPhail
Repetition, repetition, repetition. From poring over pinyin to matching tones like a choir, familiarity with the concept and culture of Mandarin Chinese is important in professor Chuan Xu’s class. Phot:o Colin McPhail

Chuan Xu stands in the middle of a semi-circle of desks and smiles to her students. “Nihao,” she says. The students greet their professor in unison: “Nihao.”

It’s been a month and a half since the Mandarin Chinese class debuted at Mount Saint Vincent University, and the going is slow. But no one seems deterred that it’s the mid-point of the semester and they’re still learning the basics of salutation. The symphony of uncertain speech and tonal repetition is bringing them ever closer to speaking and understanding the world’s most spoken language.

There are about one billion Mandarin speakers worldwide, according to a 2000 census. The language originated in northern China around the 12th century, historians say. Today, the majority of its speakers are found in the northern and southwestern parts of the country.

The Mount’s Department of Modern Languages arranged to have its inaugural Mandarin class begin in the fall semester and Chuan, who teaches the same course at Dalhousie University, says it was time.
“It only makes sense for a modern language department to have Chinese language as one of the courses,” she says. “It’s a very alive, vital language, and it’s very useful in many ways.”

Larry Steele, who chairs the modern languages department, said it’s a chance for students to try something new and the class coincides with the university’s China Summer Institute program, which sends exchange students to China.

“It’s an old language, but it’s very modern, it’s very current,” Steele says. “And we figured people going on that program might want to get introduced to language and culture a bit.”

The introductory course is still considered a pilot project, with only eight students registered. But almost the entire group signed up to take the intermediate class in the winter term. Among them is Ashley MacKinnon, a fourth-year French major who wants teach English in China before becoming a translator.

“I figured the best way to do it is to have a working knowledge of the language while you’re there, so you’re not like some alien and have no idea what’s going on,” she said. “I want to go and have one foot on the ground.”

Chuan uses Chinese culture to illustrate nuance within the language. From the manner in which an elder should be greeted to subtle tonal differences that change the meaning of words, she looks to historic Chinese art, literature and music to bring the textbook ink to life.

“You could have access to such rich cultural heritage if you knew the language,” Chuan says.
She guides the class through a poem by Li Bai, a seventh-century romantic poet from the Tang dynasty period, as the class moves into the structure of simple conversations. She pauses when a student doesn’t hit the correct tone of a Chinese character. The room fills with an echo when Chuan hits the tone and the student tries to match it. It goes back and forth five times before Chuan exclaims “wanmei” – in English, “perfect.”

The long days of studying pinyin, the system of transcribing Chinese into the Roman alphabet, are over. And students such as Amanda Field, a second-year French major, can enter the practical setting.
She says learning Mandarin isn’t just for world travellers. It’s becoming increasingly prevalent in Canadian society – the introduction of a Mandarin course to a small university in Nova Scotia is a clear indication – and the course allows her to adapt to our changing culture.

Statistics Canada reported in 2011 that it’s the mother-tongue of the third-largest group in the country, behind English and French.

When visiting the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Field said she was surprised the signage was in English, French and Chinese.

“I could read two of them,” she says of the trip of languages. “But, I’d love to be able to read the third.”