Learning Chinese in Suzhou

May 3, 2016

This month we turn to coming to Suzhou and learning some of the Chinese language. It is true that one can quite easily be in Suzhou without learning any Chinese at all, but even adding a few basics, such as food and restaurant words, numbers and counting for shopping and how to direct taxis will make your stay much smoother and more enjoyable. However, to get the true China experience, one must embark upon a more systematic approach to grappling with the language.

I found myself in Liverpool this week talking to a group of young people who have chosen to come to Suzhou and embark upon a Chinese language learning experience, ranging from two weeks in length to a whole academic year. I was interested in why they were keen to do this and why learn Chinese. I also met a very experienced Chinese language teacher who is based in Suzhou and thought I would ask her advice on how to proceed.

First off, how difficult is it for a speaker of one of the European tongues to get to grips with Chinese? The language is tonal, which can be difficult for westerners to get to grips with – both in identifying the different tones and reproducing them. Western languages tend to rely on what is called the ‘4th’ tone and so we can mangle our words. Changing the tone changes the word – something that does not really happen in English. Secondly, as is obvious upon arrival, the writing technology that Chinese employs is character-based and not based upon letters. These have to be learnt and there is even a special order in which the strokes of each one are written. It is said that you need to learn about 5,000 characters to become fluent in reading. The good news is that the use of pin-yin when writing on mobile phones and computers has eased the finding of the right characters when on the move. Further good news is that Chinese grammar is relatively simple, for example, lacking verb tenses, relative clauses and singular and plural forms of nouns.

So why are young Liverpudlians coming to study Chinese in Suzhou? I met a group of around 60 who will be flying over, starting this summer. Billy is typical in his responses to my questions. Why come to Suzhou? “China’s influence and status on the world stage is enormous… It is too big to ignore. Given recent trade deals ranging in scope from power plants to the automotive industry to property and finance, it is clear that future British prosperity is ever closer linked to China’s. Learning more about Chinese history, culture and language will not only be extremely interesting in and of itself but I believe will also improve my prospects when entering into the competitive graduate job market in the UK.”

I asked Billy why he was coming to Suzhou and not studying a course in the UK. “I am hugely looking forward to seeing as much of the diverse nature of China as I can. I plan to go to Beijing to see the Forbidden City and want to travel to Chengdu to see the giant pandas and experience the skyscraper studded global financial centre of Hong Kong.” Billy added that he really wants to make some Chinese friends in Suzhou and that this will help him feel at home there.

Wei Li has been teaching Chinese as a foreign language since 2008. She has taught at Zhejiang University, and the University of Western Australia and is now teaching at XJTLU in Suzhou, where she teaches on the degree modules and is the head teacher on the Chinese Language Summer School. I asked Wei what the best way to get started is, “Don’t be afraid first of all. Speak to Chinese people, even if you have to rely on body language. Make people talk to you. You need to hear how words are pronounced. The more you talk to people the more you hear. Another good starting point is to try to use pinyin because it makes students feel it is familiar to English writing, even though it is different. Start with vocabulary and pronunciation, some of which is quite unique to Chinese. Everything we learn has to be useful, so learn short sentences and use them to practice pronunciation. Beginners do not need to sound like Chinese people but just need to be understood and sentences create a context that helps with this.”

I asked whether we need to know whether people are speaking Mandarin Chinese or a local dialect. “Most young people these days just speak Mandarin and when talking to foreigners everyone uses Mandarin so that is not a problem.”

I asked whether going to a class is better than trying to learn it alone. “I cannot say it is impossible through self-study but if you have teachers and classmates then it is much more interesting and actually easier. It motivates you more to practice and do exercises and especially with language study you need to speak to other people. You cannot speak to yourself.”

So, if you are in Suzhou or are coming to Suzhou, bite the bullet and join a Chinese class sooner rather than later. Below, Wei has recommended some learning tools and courses. Good luck!


http://www.pleco.com (Online dictionary and phone app)

http://www.hanban.com (The headquarters of the Conficius Institute)


About the Column

Markus Davis

Markus is from the Isle of Wight in the UK and had been living in Suzhou since 2013. It is his first time living in China and before this he was in London. He has been teaching English all of his adult life and in HE since 2000. He is lucky to have his wife with him in Suzhou and together they are making a new life. His interests include eating out (a lot) and exploring local areas on his ebike. And recently, walking a doggie.

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