Pupils get to grips with Mandarin

Curtis Harrison and a classmate practise asking asking questions in Mandarin about colour in Simon's Town School as teacher Huaying looks on.

Outside everything looks as expected. False Bay looking out from Simon’s Town as beautiful as ever. But inside the Simon’s Town classroom there is a complete shift in perspective as pupils get ready for their Mandarin lesson.

Simon’s Town School has started offering Mandarin as an elective subject after South Africa and China signed bilateral agreements to strengthen business ties and co-operate on educational matters.

Quiet and neatly dressed, Huaying Wu is a Master’s student from Guang Zhou in southern China. His field of study is teaching Mandarin as a second language so he is perfectly qualified to test out his expertise on the Simon’s Town School pupils.

“So far so good,” he said with a smile. “Simon’s Town School is developed and educated. The children are so quiet and eager to learn new things – it’s very impressive to me.”

Mr Wu teaches Grade 2s to Grade 10s and changes his teaching according to the ages, their needs and their characters. The younger children, he said, like to learn in a more active way; the older ones like to sit down and learn. With the maritime students, he concentrates more on conversational Mandarin on the assumption their career will bring them in contact with Chinese people in their field of expertise.

Besides teaching at Simon’s Town on Wednesdays and Fridays, he teaches at Hillcrest Primary in Mowbray as well as teaching adults whose professions range widely, from preschool techers to officials to fashion designers.

He is part of the Confucius Institute at the UCT, which supplies the books and materials, and also lives on campus. Mr Wu is here for one year as a volunteer.

Chinese languages are notoriously difficult. Unlike the languages we are familiar with, with an alphabet and each letter having its own sound, Chinese languages have characters that represent words or concepts.

Some estimate you have to learn about 2000 to 3000 before you can read a newspaper, with dictionaries having between 20 000 and 50 000 characters. The language is also tonal, so you have to approach it with a musical ear otherwise you could be saying something completely different from what you intend.

Mr Wu is optimistic. He has the marked tests from the last lesson.

“Congratulations!” he beams at his Grade 10s. “You all did really well. You all passed. One got 100 percent and many got 28 out of 29.”

It’s easy to see that a lot of thought has gone into Mr Wu’s lessons. First, he goes over how our alphabet is used to phonetically represent Mandarin, practising the tones going up, going down, staying the same, some sounding more in the back of the throat, some sounding like going through a tunnel. Inevitably, repetition is key.

The Grade 10s practise saying, “Hello, how are you?” The Chinese characters and the Roman phonetic characters are displayed. Then it’s vocabulary practice as Mr Wu takes items out of a bag – a Chinese bowl, some chopsticks and the like – as the pupils practice naming the items.

He checks what they remember about culture, giving thumbs up or down for true or false.

He bangs on the bowl with his chopsticks. “This means the food is very delicious!” – false – it is rude. Chopsticks resting on the bowl – “I am finished eating” – true.

Then it is time for colours, and you can tell how important tones are with red and yellow distinguished only by the one having its tones going up and the other going down. This is demonstrated with the Chinese flag, red and yellow. Then more colours with the South African flag. Then he goes round the class asking, in Mandarin, “What colour is that?” and having them reply, “This is …”

Then he teaches them to say, “What is your favourite colour/My favourite colour is…” They practice in pairs.

An interesting conceptual difference arises: there is no word for pink in Mandarin. You have to say, “light red”.

Practice is followed by a video clip of Peking Theatre, the traditional Chinese theatre, and he explains how colours are used to symbolise characteristics on Chinese masks.

So a mask with red decorations means loyal, brave, courage. A mask with black decorations means impartial, integrity and hot-tempered, often a judge, giving an indication how judges are traditionally viewed.

Then a quick practice with writing numbers and counting one to 10 with gestures. One to five is much like we would expect, but six looks like the “phone me” gesture, another looks like a gun, another like an r, with 10 being a held-up fist.

Little by little, a mind shift is introduced. It’s not just a language that is coming through but a completely different way of seeing.

And so the lesson ends and the pupils file out into the sunshine. Outside the sea and the mountains beyond look exactly the same, but it is inside their minds that things have changed.