As part of the Beijinger’s daily Mandarin Month series ahead of our June 25 Mandarin Mixer, we are profiling some of the capital's most fluently bilingual laowai. The star of today's installment: Francis Tchiegue, a Cameroonian cultural exchange ambassador between China and Africa, and a frequent host and guest on numerous Chinese TV programs. Below he sings the praises of the Chinese language.
Tell us more about how you use Mandarin in your professional life.
I do use it a lot. Through my work I speak with many African and European delegates who are visiting China, many from French or English speaking countries. I’ll work on translations and the hosting of conferences and forums. I did this for the President of the Republic of Burundi, and the President of Tanzania. I couldn’t do any of that without a very high level of Chinese, because Chinese staff would not just get someone off the street to translate for a high-level official.
I’ve also hosted and been a guest on many Chinese TV shows. Through all of this you get to increase your Chinese level and knowledge, and you get some recognition from the audience.
What are the biggest benefits of Mandarin fluency?
Chinese is renowned around the world as one of the toughest languages. Even abroad, we have a saying for any time that we don’t understand something: “It's all Chinese to me.” So when you can master it, that by itself is a major achievement. Any foreigner who tried to study it knows how difficult it is, and for me to get recognition from natives and from some officials, that gives me a lot of pride.
What aspects of learning Chinese challenged you the most?
For me, the first big challenge was the reading and the writing. Why? Because Western languages have a Latin alphabet. When you switch from French to English it’s the same letters, just a different pronunciation. Your lips will make the same sound with the letter “b” in any language. But with Chinese, you don't have this logic. For Westerners, it’s a mess in our brain.
So foreigners need to decipher every character, go slowly, and use a lot of memory. Chinese requires a lot of memorization, and we are not familiar with that in Western languages. We don't need to recite single words – if we know the alphabet and then some vocabulary we can just speak! But in China, you need to recite the sound and know it.
The second big challenge: the tones. This is another headache for foreigners. In English or French we speak the way we want, according to our mood. But ni hao ma has so many different meanings, it can make you tired.
How did you overcome these difficulties?
I focused on characters later on. I started with tones first. In any language, you usually start with the oral. Then, when you have the basics, try to write and read. Human language is made for us to talk to each other, then start writing later at another level.
So for the tones, I would say I use my musical ear. In the beginning, when I took basic courses, the teacher taught us basic syllables, and we’d repeat like parrots. I wouldn’t put mood in my pronunciation – like I do when I speak English or French. I’d just say exactly what the teacher said. I’d repeat it like a song.
Then you focused on characters?
Yes. This was very difficult, because in my opinion very few of the characters look like the word they represent. To me, the character for mountain (山, shān) does look like a mountain. But I feel that most of the other characters don’t successfully give me a picture of what they’re referring to. That means, at first, it takes a very long time to read even half a page of Chinese writing. My trick: copy some characters every day, to help you learn and memorize them. I’d take a textbook, and every day I’d copy two pages. Gradually, this practice helps.
What advice do you have for foreigners who are struggling to learn Mandarin?
First: Whenever you’re trying to master any field, you must above all have a love for what you’re doing. You have to feel from your heart a desire to do it. If there’s no desire, than no matter how smart you are, I’m afraid you’ll easily give up.
Second: You need self confidence. This is very important. If you’re thinking: “I like it but, I don't have the skill. I feel like I’m failing, why should I try?” This attitude limits yourself. You need to tell yourself: “This stuff is made for me. I don't care how many people failed, I can do it.” That is a very important attitude.
Third: Endurance. You need to be patient with the process. The results start to come when you don't even notice. Just keep giving it time, and you’ll start to reap the rewards without noticing.
It’s also important to not only study the language, but also the culture. I’ve learned about Peking Opera and Crosstalk (相声, xiàngsheng) and things like that. If you make it fun, rather than only studying seriously, it will motivate you as well.
Don't miss out on TBJ's free June 25 Mandarin Month event. Pre-registration is required; click here to do so, in order to take advantage of free booze and other goodies.
In the meantime, follow our month-long Mandarin Month series here.
This post is brought to you by Pleco, Project Pengyou, and Ninchanese.
Photo courtesy of Francis Tchiegue
Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog