Belfast Telegraph

It's straight-talking Lindy ... but in another language

By Lindy McDowell

Why Mandarin? That's the first question people always ask. Why on earth are you trying to learn Mandarin? The short answer is I'm not exactly sure. But I've always been fascinated by language and Chinese is as fascinating a language as they come.

So a year ago when I saw a small ad in this newspaper offering the chance to study Mandarin at the University of Ulster in Belfast I thought I'd have a crack at it.

After all - how hard could it be?

As it turns out, actually pretty hard indeed. But surprising as this might seem, it's also been great fun. It has, in fact, been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable challenges I've ever tackled.

OK, so I'm not exactly fluent enough (yet) to have an in depth conversation with a Beijing government official on the ins and outs of the Chinese economic miracle.

In fact, as I discovered this summer, I still have some difficulty getting a Beijing taxi driver to understand the name of the hotel I'd like him to take me to.

But I can exchange some limited small talk. And in a Belfast shopping centre recently I was even able to make out bits of a row between a young Chinese couple. She was angry with him because she wanted to go back and look at the magazines and he was insisting they hadn't the time.

Needless to say there are, of course, more powerful and practical reasons for learning Mandarin than the possibility of eavesdropping on other people's tiffs.

The emergence of China as an economic super-power has bolstered the importance of the language in global terms. In China itself almost 1 billion people speak Standard Mandarin or, as it's known, " putonghua", which translates as "common speech".

This point has not been missed by the government here, which recently promoted the merits of introducing what it calls economically important languages, including Mandarin, to the school curriculum.

So far only a handful of schools in England have made the subject compulsory but those which have - including a college in Brighton where they start teaching it to kids as young as three - have reported an encouragingly positive response both from the pupils and in terms of exam results.

My fellow students on the UU course reflect some of the many reasons why people choose to learn the language.

For a start there are those who are learning it for commercial reasons - a growing number of firms in Northern Ireland are trading with China. And educational establishments here are taking an increasing number of students from mainland China.

Then there are those who are studying the language for personal reasons - people who have family members from, or family ties with, mainland China.

(Most Chinese people in Northern Ireland have links to Hong Kong where Cantonese is the main language.)

Then there are those like me who are learning it - well, for no real, obvious, practical reason. Just because we want to.

In charge of our course is the brilliant Dr Hau Tran who, as the name suggests, is actually Vietnamese. (He also teaches Japanese.) Like all gifted teachers his great skill is the ability to convey his own considerable enthusiasm for the language - and to get you to push yourself that bit further than you really thought possible.

Our two other teachers, Chunwen and Youwei, who come from Beijing are equally inspiring and encouraging.

We're taught how to speak in Chinese and, yes, the intimidating bit, how to read and write in Chinese.

There are somewhere in the region of 50,000 Chinese characters. But to be able to read and write you need "only" a more manageable 2,000. I have still some considerable way to go in that respect.

As for the time it all takes - during term there are two three-hour sessions each week in late afternoon/evenings. But as Dr Tran makes abundantly clear we're also expected to put in a few hours at home under our own steam.

If this sounds a bit daunting let me reassure you that if I can do it anyone can. Let's just say that nobody has ever accused me in the past of being a martyr to self-discipline.

Earlier this year, spurred by my interest in the language, I spent a couple of weeks in China.

When you get a glimpse of the sheer scale and vibrancy of that eastern giant - of the enormity of its potential and its growing influence, you're left in no doubt how crucial the ability of western nations to communicate with it will be in the years ahead.

China is no longer the distant "forbidden" land of communist isolation.

It's even targeting us here in Northern Ireland. In recent weeks leading members of the Chinese travel trade have been over to check out what we have to offer.

It's estimated that by 2020, 100 million Chinese travellers - often extremely well heeled travellers - will be seeking new tourism experiences. The potential for the local market to capitalise on that is enormous. And again it's the ability to communicate that will be key.

The goal at the end of our two-year course at the University of Ulster is a diploma.

But I can honestly say that what I've gained from it already has been much more important that any paper qualification.

I would recommend it to anyone.

For further details of the course, contact Dr H. Tran

School of Languages and Literature

University of Ulster, Coleraine, BT52 1SA

Tel: 028 7032 4588. Or email

Webpage -

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