This entailed visiting a school in Sanlitun for 6 hours a day, five days a week. The morning is dedicated to new words and structures, the early afternoon to speaking and the latter stages to listening and understanding. A rotation of teachers ensures the student gets exposure to a wide variety of Chinese accents, from native Beijingers to those farther afield.
There were only two other students so everyone got plenty of attention from the teachers – some more than others – and we had other people in the class with which to practice conversations.
Heres a tip for those attending certain language schools – if one of your fellow students is a 20-something year old with short skirts and long blonde hair, you get zero attention from the male teacher. I mean zero – the other two of us got completely ignored for the last 55 minutes of the hour long session.
The next day he decided to teach from the back of the class where he could get a better look at her legs.
The first day was dedicated to tones, sentence structure and pinyin, then basic introductions and niceties.
The second morning we learnt a few verbs like ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ and started building vocabulary. The first vocabulary took the form of numbers, family members and countries.
The female teachers stuck with the usual “Do you have a brother”, “Which country do you come from” etc.
The male teacher’s number lesson went along the lines of “Repeat after me: Yī, èr, sān, sì (1,2,3,4), good – lets learn a new word…”
“Todays new word is Nán péngyǒu, which means boyfriend”
Ignoring the rest of us, the blonde gets asked “Nǐ yǒu nán péngyǒu?” (Do you have a boyfriend?)
“Yes I do. My boyfriend is Spanish”
After a visible wince, “Oh, well lets carry on – Wǔ, liù, qī, bā (5,6,7,8)…”, then “I’ve got a wife you know, Jiǔ, shí, ling (9, 10, zero)”
The other two of us look at each other and sigh.
The teacher calls the end of the class and moves to the back for a better view of her legs.
The second day also had homework – I’d forgotten how much I hate homework. To facilitate this we were told to buy a text book. The homework wasn’t in the text book, the vocabulary may have been in the text book, but the book was all in Chinese Characters, so I couldn’t tell. So far no further mention has been made of the text book, so it feels like a worthwhile purchase…
Learning in Beijing
I’m convinced that Beijing isn’t a particularly helpful place to learn Chinese as very few people have the time or inclination to let you practice simple or correct Mandarin sentences. In a restaurant, nobody asks “Please may I have the bill” – they just shout “maidan” (settle the bill), then “maidan” again a few times whilst the staff try to ignore them.
The only place I can have a normal conversation is in my local corner shop, where they always seem to be offering to help me practice as their bit of fun for the day.
On the third day of the course we were given a native Beijinger to take us for listening practice. After listening to a nice clear Harbin accent the Beijinger appeared to be adding “aarrr” to the end of everything. Sanlitun became, Sanlituarrr; fanguan became fanguarrrr – all very appropriate for the upcoming Talk Like A Pirate Day.
Too Intensive Mandarin Course?
If I’m honest, 6 hours a day plus homework, 5 days a week was too much to absorb fully everything I was learning. By the fourth day, I had a headache that just wouldn’t go away and by the end of the fifth, I accepted defeat and rearranged the lessons down to 2-3 hours a day, which should be far more manageable.
So far, the class has yielded excellent results. It’s a struggle, but we can now describe a reasonably complicated night out, deal with restaurants and shopping, and direct taxi drivers. By the third day, the taxi driver who took me home fully understood all my directions without having to resort to the usual written note, so I was pleased with that.
Of the three classmates, one has amazing grammar, but can’t remember the vocabulary; one has a great vocabulary, but dodgy pronunciation and I’ve got decent pronunciation but consistently fail to get the sentence order right. All the words are correct, just not necessarily in the right order to make any sense. You’d think that would be an easy thing to fix…