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Climbing the Mandarin Mountain

It is 7:50 a.m. Another day of Chinese class awaits. Tom gathers his books and heads out the door. Downstairs, he waves at the door lady. ‘Zao (good morning),’ she says with a smile. In case he had forgotten, this is the day’s first reminder that he is in China.

On the short walk to the language school, he passes a group of old people using fake swords to do their morning t’ai-chi exercises. He is defi nitely in China.

Tom arrives at the school at 8:00 a.m. sharp, usually at the same time as his teacher, whose English name is Mary. Neither one of them is ‘a morning person’ but within a few minutes Mary is her friendly, ever-corrective-of-his-Chinese self. Today, they were starting a new lesson, which meant new vocabulary. In the cycle of the lessons, this is Tom’s favourite day.

Tom opens his book and begins repeating each word Mary says.
‘Pingshi,’ she begins.
Oh no, two second tones in a row! This is one of Tom’s weaknesses. He concentrates … ‘Pingshi.’

‘Piiinng,’ Mary says, exaggerating it to let him know he didn’t get his tone high enough.

‘Okay, … Piiinngshiii,’ Tom replies, feeling silly.

‘Feichang hao (very good),’ she says. Tom is not sure he believes her.

‘Translate for me,’ she says. ‘There are a lot of Australians at that university.’

“When will I ever say that?’ Tom thinks to himself, before beginning the translation process. There are … probably have to use ‘you’ (pronounced ‘yo’) and maybe ‘zai.’ Oh yes, ‘zai.’ Another weakness. It seemingly has about 30 diff erent meanings in Chinese. Tom decides he’s going to try to get by without it this time.

‘Neige daxue you hen duo Aodaliyaren,’ he says sheepishly.

‘Dui (correct)’ she says.

‘YESSS!!!’ They say to celebrate your ‘language victories’ as a means of encouragement and Tom needs all the encouragement he can get. Today is going to be a good ‘Chinese day’ (meaning he will be able to speak and comprehend better than usual). He can feel it.

‘Next sentence,’ says Mary, interrupting his positive thoughts. ‘I haven’t played basketball for two months.’

‘Okay, I got this,’ Tom thinks to himself. ‘Wo mei da lanqiu liang ge yue,’ he says, confi dently this time.

The look on Mary’s face says it all. ‘Should you put “liang ge yue” before or aft er ‘mei’?’ she asks. Tom now knows he is wrong, but decides to protest anyway.

‘But “time spent” phrases go aft er the verb, don’t they?’ he inquires.

‘Not if it’s negative time spent,’ says Mary.

‘Right … should’ve known that,’ Tom chides himself. ‘That was one of last week’s lessons.’

After two hours, class is over. Tom is excited about the new words he now knows, but once again he feels humbled by his lack of mastery of this language. It’s like being a child again.

Once when discussing a colleague’s name in class, Tom had told Mary the name was ‘Xiao (3rd tone) Ji (1st tone).’

She nearly jumped out of her chair. ‘Don’t say that! You’re calling her a small chicken!’

Whoops. These moments happen all the time.

It’s time to return home and immerse himself in learning the new vocabulary. First, he says goodbye to Mary. ‘Zaijian (goodbye),’ he says. ‘Wait a minute … I can use “zai” correctly. There is hope!’

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