If I ever needed proof that I’m getting older, my Mandarin class is providing lots of evidence.
I’m about halfway through my first course of Mandarin lessons and it does not bode well. I can’t seem to get anything much to stick. Two seconds after we’ve practiced a phrase, it’s gone again. And it’s making me feel dumber by the lesson.
My teacher is pityingly patient but I sense that even she is getting towards the end of her tether. But at least we hear, “NO! Horrible European pronunciation!! Listen again! Or Chinese person hear you and know immediately you foreigner!”, somewhat less frequently.
I’ve never been anywhere close to being called a polyglot and I knew going into this that Mandarin is tough to learn because of the infamous “tones” – get one wrong and you’ll insult someone’s mother when you’re just trying to ask about the weather.
What has amazed me though is the number of expats in my class who have lived in China for years, literally years, without learning any of the language.
In some cases it is because they work long hours in an English language environment; others have Chinese spouses who take care of all their pesky language needs; others remain within the expat bubble, relying on their more linguistically advanced friends to get by.
I’m taking classes at a school that was recommended by a lot of different people and I’m generally very happy with the quality of teaching but why, for example, can I say “the restaurant is near the Forbidden City”, and “yesterday I ate dumplings”, but not, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Mandarin and if I do try to use the few words I know, I am likely to slaughter your ancient , glorious language (which has been referred to as the Italian of the East by the way) and confuse you greatly”?