From Bruce Lee to Granny

9th March 2001 at 00:00
Young students tell Kevin Berry why they love doing Chinese

I can't follow Bruce Lee films yet, but I'm doing well," says Mark Little. He and 24 fellow pupils at Prince Henry's grammar school, a comprehensive in Otley, are learning Mandarin Chinese. Some in Year 8 have taster lessons as part of their regular PSE programme. They have had their taster lessons and now go along to weekly twilight sessions on a course accredited by St Martin's College at Lancaster University.

Some teachers have also been attending these evening sessions. The science teachers, it can now be revealed, do their Mandarin Chinese homework together in their staffroom during the lunch hour. The Prince Henry students were intrigued when Chinese teenagers arrived last year on an exchange visit. They were from the other side of the world, and their totally different language and culture fired up a lot of interest. A visit to China is planned for June. Julie Forrest and Emma Attwood are both from former Army families. They want to join the Military Police and a Mandarin Chinese qualification will serve them well with postings. Mandarin will be offered as a GCSE subject in two years' time.

"I suppose it is difficult," says Emma. "But having a lisp does make Chinese easier to speak!" Teaching is in the hands of Damien Howells, a Phd student at Leeds University's department of East Asian studies. "Originally I had planned not to teach them writing," he says. "Because in my own experience of learning Chinese, you have to sit down every day to do some writing or you won't learn the characters. But I soon discovered that the children find writing the most interesting part. There is something about the characters.

"It will be good to have students coming to our university department with some experience of Chinese, rather than having to start from scratch. At the moment just about all Chinese translating in the UK is done by Chinese people. That should change in the next few years."

Prince Henry's achieved specialist language college status a year ago and then, as part of its brief to promote languages in the community, set up a Saturday language school for Chinese families in nearby Leeds.

The community school uses classrooms at Little London primary school, which is close to Leeds University. There are more than 40 pupils in the four to 16 age range and some of the older children are already preparing for GCSE. Most have parents whoare working or studying at the university. Wesley Wu, head of the community school, explains that parents want to ensure that their children can read and write excellent Mandarin, for both cultural and career reasons. There are four classes, each with a native speaker as teacher. Recruitment interviews were very demanding, says Wu. The candidates' diction had to be exact and free of regional accent and grammatical influences. Mandarin Chinese has a parallel with BBC English. Cantonese Chinese is not so highly regarded.

Fourteen-year-old Geraldine Huang shows me her textbook. It has classic Chinese folk stories and is free of political dogma. Apparently, finding textbooks without political dogma was difficult and Chinese textbooks could only be purchased in full sets, one for each level, rather than 20 of the same.

Eight-year-old Xun Luo has a personal reason for learning Mandarin: "I have a grandmother in China and I haven't ever seen her. I have spoken to her on the telephone. She speaks Mandarin and I want to be able to write her a letter."


* Mandarin is the standard language of China and is spoken by 70 per cent of its population.

* Mandarin is based on the pronunciation of the northern dialect. Cantonese is often mistaken for the major Chinese language but is just one of eight major dialects. A Mandarin speaker and a Cantonese speaker will not understand each other but they share the same written form.

* The total number of Chinese characters has been estimated at more than 50,000, of which no more than 8,000 are in common use with only 3,000 used for everyday purposes. The standard system for transcribing Chinese sounds into Latin script is called Pinyin. In mainland China schools use Pinyin to teach pronunciation to young children.

* The question word comes at the end of the sentence, for example, "You are going when?" Time phrases come before the verb, for example, "I nine o'clock finish work". Important information comes first, for example, "To telephone Australia is very expensive". The largest unit in a sentence always comes first, for example, "He from France Paris comes".

* Verbs do not show tenses - extra words such as "tomorrow" are required; nouns are neither singular nor plural, a number is needed.

* Chinese is a tonal language. The word "ma" can mean mother or horse, depending on which of four tones is used - so care is needed.

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