Home / Sound Theory of Learning Chinese

Sound Theory of Learning Chinese

A Talk with Fu Xianling on Learning Mandarin in HK — by Steve Chen of China Daily

VOL 9 No. 195

English may be the most commonly used second language across the world today but by 2050, Putonghua ( or Mandarin ) could become the favourite vernacular of the 15-24-year age group . No less than the prestigious Science magazine has said so in a 2004 study .

An estimated 30 million people, says a recent survey on language learning, are studying Putonghua worldwide. For business or travel purposes, an increasing number of professionals and China-lovers are enrolling in Putonghua classes. But despite the interest in the language and the explosion of tuition centres and support materials, Putonghua remains a difficult language to learn even an impossible task for some.

Difficulties still exist in Hong Kong, even though an overwhelming majority in the city are Cantonese speakers, with another recent survey re fie cting mainland visitors' disappo intment with the language (Putonghua) proficiency of those working in city's services industries.

But that doesn't mean the language cannot be mastered, says Fu Xianling, managing director and founder of up-market language centre New Concept Mandarin. What is needed is the right approach.

"People studying Putonghua focus too much on developing their speaking and listening skills. But proper learning of the language needs a holistic approach. This means they need to develop all the four skills speaking, listening, reading and writing at the same time."

People studying Mandarin need a holistic approach

English, Spanish or French speakers are equally challenged while learning Putonghua, says Fu, who has been teaching the language for more than 15 years now. The reason: the intrinsic differences between English (a Germanic language of the Indo-European group of languages ), Spanish or French (Roman languages of the Indo-European group) and Putonghua (a Sino-Tibetan language).

"English and these (other) languages are alphabet-based but Chinese is a tonal language with a character-based writing system... Grammatically, Chinese is actually quite simple," Fu says. "And (its sentence) patterns are not too different from English. English speakers in general can understand the grammar without difficulty. " The challenge, he says, is to teach people not used to using tones or characters to express words or meanings.

"Learning characters is not as hard as people think. To help students learn characters we draw pictures and create a story with it, but they still need to remember the characters and their pronunciation. We teach characters from the first lesson and (later) characters that appear in compounds. Students see that as part of a (complex) character... these characters have related meanings."

Understanding characters and knowing to write them have a lot of benefits. Even understanding simple characters makes a good start. Once you know some basic characters, you can find them in many other situations.

"We teach students how to recognize characters and encourage them to look for them in things around them street signs, menu cards, advertisements there is a lot of visual information around and that provides additional learning opportunities outside the class."

Though many teaching methods use pinyin, or Romanized characters, to explain pronunciation, it has a detrimental effect in the long run, says Fu. "Pinyin offers some help initially, especially in pronunciation, but as more characters are encountered, students find it d计ficult to relate them to anything meaningful. For example, the characters si (four) and shi in qingshi (despise) sound similar but have different meanings.Not knowing the characters could confuse students."

"In the end, those who focus on speaking and listening only suffer. In the initial stages, they make good progress, but after a few hours of study, students studying characters too begin to catch up. Eventually, the ones that are developing reading and writing skills cover more during the same period." The most efficient way of learning would be to let "the four skills support each other".

Ironically, pinyin is more useful to Cantonese speakers, for their main difficulty is to differentiate the up to nine tones they use from the four used in Putonghua.

For Cantonese speakers, learning Putonghua should be as easy as learning another Chinese dialect. But there are some problems, even though the grammar is similar. Cantonese speakers often use the wrong tone, and end up not making any sense to a Putonghua speaker. This is where pinyin helps, because it indicates the tone to be used.

"Some may have difficulty in learning and using the simplified Chinese characters too. There are clues in the traditional Chinese characters, which Cantonese uses and which help with writing simplified characters."

Besides the tonal, reading and writing challenges, foreign students face other challenges too, says Fu. "Leaming a language requires an understanding of the culture associated with it. It's part of the learning process. That is why our lessons are context-based and related to Chinese topics."

For those keen to learn the language, Fu has some tips to offer: "It's important that you have the right attitude…Most people only think of the negative side they hear about: the grammar is confusing, the tones are impossible to master; it's difficult to remember so many characters."

Learning a language is about embracing a culture…
learning about customs and the way of communicating

" Instead, they should understand that learning a language is about embracing a culture…learning about customs and the way of communicating. A holistic approach means looking at everything around them."

Students should keep in mind their own learning style. "Some students are good at understanding visual information, others learn better through listening, still others by understanding concepts and sentence patterns."

Knowing their strengths can help students determine the areas of a lesson they are likely to learn more easily and the areas they will have trouble with, he says.

European students, used to dealing with languages other than their mother tongue or national language at home, are generally better at learning and remembering sentence patterns but those from monolingual countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom do not fare as well. These students perform better with role-plays and drama.

But that does not mean other areas should be ignored rather it shows which areas a student needs to work on. The focus should always be on a thorough grasp of the four skills, he insists.

Despite the challenges faced by Putonghua learners and course fees that at New Concept Mandarin could be as high as HK$17,000 plus, Fu has no doubt that the study of Putonghua is worth the effort.

"With Hong Kong's high quality services, it is a good base for foreign companies doing business on the mainland, and an important place for mainland companies who want international exposure or (otherwise) do business with foreign companies. So there is a need for businessmen to be able to communicate with Chinese speakers on a business as well as a social level."

"There is a formality in the way Chinese do business from the way someone presents his business card to how he handles social occasions. And we teach this in our classes. Our students are in the premium market executives and upper management and they see the knowledge of Putonghua as an investment that will improve their business. If their company's prospects improve because of this, then for them, the investment is worth it."

For the Chinese people, the way a foreigner presents himself is important. If a businessman speaks even a little Chinese, it will help. This shows he has respect for Chinese culture and the person and is making an effort to communicate.

"That's a good way (for a foreigner) to form a bond with his Chinese counterpart."

"Translators are useful in bridging the communication gap, but sometimes meanings can get confused. So it is always better for people to communicate directly."

China Daily Hong Kong Edition