Learning Chinese in China

Studying Chinese? What are we thinking of?

In the future we plan to travel in China and may even do some business in China. So learning to speak and read some Chinese will come in handy in the future.

Tom and I arrived in Kunming Sunday, February 28. Our Chinese language classes began at Keats School on Monday morning, March 1. You can check out the school’s website and even take a video tour of the school: www.keatsschool.com

Our classes meet Monday through Friday from 8:30am-12:30pm, with a short break mid-way. A few students have class in the afternoon instead of morning. The school pairs each student with a teacher appropriate for that student’s previous knowledge of Chinese as well as learning goals.

Each teacher teaches no more than two students, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. He or she customizes each day’s lesson based on the previous day’s work. The teachers are closely supervised and advised by the school’s curriculum director.

My teacher is Lulu Ma, age 20. Pronounced with appropriate tones, Lulu is her Chinese given name. She has taught at Keats School for two months. In the afternoon she teaches another older student, a 55 year-old man. Like most Keats teachers, Lulu is a university student. She is majoring in English and hopes to continue her studies this fall in Melbourne, Australia, focusing on translation. She is also quite an accomplished pianist and loves to play basketball.

Tom’s teacher is Min-Shu Lai. She and Lulu are the same age, grew up together in a village near Kunming and are very good friends. They live with one other student in a six-person Yunnan University dormitory room. Min-Shu is also majoring in English. She has passed the exam to qualify for Communist Party membership and is engaged in required classes during the one-year waiting period before becoming a Party member. (For many of China’s best jobs, Party members have priority over non-members with equal test scores.) After graduation she plans to work, save money and then spend time in a foreign country. Her uncle has lived in New York for 18 years and her nephew is a graduate of Northwestern.

I am learning to speak survival Manadrin, which involves learning grammar and vocabulary. My first task is learning to pronounce and hear the language’s syllables. Spoken Manadrin has about 350 possible syllables, each of which can be pronounced using one of four distinct tones (inflections) plus a neutral tone. Tones are part of the word and must be learned carefully to avoid saying the wrong word. Students not learning Chinese characters can write words using the pinyin romanization, which uses the western alphabet to represent Mandarin pronunciation.

Tom, for whom language study is a serious hobby, has set himself a much more challenging goal. Along with learning vocabulary and grammar, he is learning to read and write Chinese characters. In addition to the intensive language study, the school offers calligraphy as an elective. So two evenings each week Tom practices calligraphy with a local master.

Students come and go. During our first week, there were about 15 students. The students are multi-national, almost every one with an interesting story: Americans, British, Chinese-Japanese-British, British (living in Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok), Belgian, French, Japanese and Spanish. Besides Tom and me, the only other couple is an African-American man and his Japanese wife who met at graduate school in America.

Most students live and dine at the school. The school’s office, classrooms, kitchen, dining room, library and computer room are on the 16th floor of a 20-story mixed-use building located near the center of downtown Kunming. One of the city’s many banks occupies the street level.

The school’s cook prepares three Chinese meals each weekday in the small, well-equipped kitchen adjacent to the dining room. Breakfast (8-8:30am), lunch (12:30-1pm) and dinner (6-6:30pm) are served buffet style. There are usually 10 to 12 different dishes including two different fresh seasonal fruits.

Tom and I are serious students. On school days we take a long walk after lunch, then study afternoons and evenings. I have never taken easily to foreign languages but am amazed that I’m actually beginning to be able to speak some fairly simple sentences. Tom’s ability to speak is increasing much more rapidly than mine. Both of us are enjoying the challenge and are impressed with the overall quality of the school.

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