SCMP Saturday, September 29, 2001

Can you learn to be a Chinese chatterbox?


Putonghua is the hot language to learn - for business on the mainland it is a must, for socialising it is chic.
Hong Kong Chinese and Westerners alike are jumping on board to the possibilities, but their needs are very different. Although Cantonese-speakers have an obvious advantage in understanding characters and the culture, Westerners may take some satisfaction in knowing that they are likely to emerge from their lessons with better pronunciation than Cantonese-speakers.
"It is easier for expats to speak with a good accent because it's all new, they are learning from scratch. Hong Kong people usually end up speaking Putonghua with a Cantonese accent," said Louisa Yu Yan-hua, Hong Kong Language Learning course co-ordinator.
The number of institutes in Hong Kong offering Putonghua lessons has boomed over the past 15 years. The methodology has come a long way too. Gone are the days of translation, dictation and drills. It is just as well: 30 years ago scholars were content to painstakingly deconstruct a language, but today's language learners want it all now. Time is a crucial element and technology adds an exciting edge to lessons.
There are dozens of courses on the market and no single one fits all, so it is worth taking the time to find a programme that suits your needs. The key issues to consider are the method of teaching, size of the class, teachers, convenience and cost.
Among the popular teaching methods are the communicative approach, "snowballing" and sound recognition. The British Council's Chinese Language Learning Unit uses the communicative method, which is based on the principle that the most effective learning occurs when language is introduced and practised in realistic contexts. "Asking a student to repeat 'it is cold' 20 times on a hot day is not useful. We try to encourage genuine communication between students, making for challenging and enjoyable lessons," said Cheung Mei-ling, Chinese Language Unit supervisor.
The snowball approach is based on repetition and revision. Students are introduced to simple vocabulary and sentence patterns and then guided to construct their own conversations using them. Fans say this method allows for regular consolidation of knowledge, but critics complain that it can make for boring lessons. Its success depends on the quality of the teacher.
Sound recognition is a relatively new technology. New Concept Mandarin, a Central-based language centre, provides students with CD-Roms that include a sound recognition package. Student listen to a short audio clip of a word and follows the speech pattern on a monitor. They then repeat the word into a microphone and try to emulate the pattern.
"This system is good for self-learning and ideal for business people who travel often and find it difficult to stick to weekly lessons," said Fu Xianling, New Concept Mandarin programme co-ordinator.
The big issue in Putonghua teaching is whether to learn Chinese characters alongside spoken language. Ms Cheung is in favour of the combined approach and is restructuring the British Council's beginners' course to include characters. She admitted that recognising and writing characters was not easy for Westerners, but said that it avoided problems in the long run.
"Most languages are taught using the four main skills - listening, speaking, reading, writing - and I don't see why Putonghua should be any different. If you teach Chinese without characters, using pinyin instead, you run into problems. Every character has just one meaning, but a pinyin word can often have more than one," Ms Cheung said.
Pinyin is the phonetic, romanised script, with the language's four tones indicated by intonation marks. The system, used by children in China as a stepping stone to literacy, can be learned within a few days.
In contrast, it tended to take about 150-200 study hours to read and write about 500 single-word Chinese characters, said Ms Cheung. Although there are more than 50,000 characters, only about 2,000 are used in an average Chinese newspaper.
Mandarin Connection is another language institute that advocates teaching characters. "The process of studying Chinese characters helps students to internalise their meaning. We use characters as a tool to support the memorisation of words. They give students a better feel for where the word comes from, as well as a deeper understanding of the culture and the language," said programme director Mark Lam Feng-yuen.
But characters are not for everyone. Ms Yu at the Hong Kong Language Learning Centre said that spoken Putonghua was difficult enough for the average Western business person. "If you are a full-time student in Beijing, learning characters is great. But most people don't have the time to master characters and if you try to teach too much at once the student might become swamped and disillusioned," Ms Yu said. Instead, she recommended that students support their language acquisition with the use of pinyin.
Class size is a crucial factor in choosing a course. Some learners assume that private lessons will guarantee a faster pace of learning, but this is not always the case. Wu Weiping, director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Chinese Language Centre, said a group of four or five was the ideal class size.
"Individual classes are not always the best. One-on-one lessons can be too intrusive and the student can often end up feeling drained by having to concentrate all the time," Dr Wu said.
Ms Cheung said her preferred class size was 12. "It is the perfect number - it is easy to divide up for group work." Private lessons were useful for students who have completed a beginner's course and are looking to focus on specific problem areas, she said.
Even the best teaching available will be wasted without practice, students are warned. Dr Wu recommended four hours' practice for every hour in the classroom. Ideally a learner would practise with a native Putonghua-speaker, but this is not always possible. Getting a mainland boyfriend or girlfriend was the best way of improving your spoken Putonghua, joked Dr Wu, but he said Hong Kong provided other - perhaps more immediate - outlets for language immersion.
"When you are learning a foreign language, one of the most important things to do is to listen. Watch Star TV or CCTV and try to interpret what people are saying. The very process of active listening stimulates your mind and helps your language acquisition," Dr Wu said.