Mandarin a study of culture as well as language
The study of any new language opens a journey of discovery into the culture behind that language, and few cultures are as diverse, geopolitically relevant and economically vital as China’s.
With that in mind, Columbia Gorge Community College this fall launches a five-credit, three-term class in Mandarin Chinese, taught by native speaker Yu Chin Tsai. Originally from Taiwan, Yu Chin was an exchange student in the People’s Republic of China, studied the instruction of Chinese as a second language at National Taiwan University, and earned her Master’s in teaching Chinese at National Chengchi University, Taiwan. She began her instructional career as a teaching assistant through the Fulbright international exchange program at Pacific University, taught in a Master’s program in International Studies at National Chengchi University, and has been tutoring professionals from around the world since 2012. She’s fluent in Mandarin, Taiwanese and English.
Fall classes begin Sept. 25 and registration is under way now. Yu Chin’s course will be Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 8:30 p.m.
Yu Chi came to the Columbia Gorge with her husband, who works in the information technology sector, last fall.
“As soon as I arrived, people starting telling me about Columbia Gorge Community College,” she said. She found an enthusiastic faculty member in Tim Schell, chair of the college’s Writing, Literature and Foreign Language Department. “I was looking for a teaching opportunity, and Tim was very supportive.”
China is a vast nation, with multiple dialects spoken across different regions. Mandarin is common to all. Yu Chin’s students in Taiwan found employment in a variety of industries, from manufacturing and chemistry to mechanical engineering. Many of her former students were corporate managers, or worked in research and development.
Given China’s powerful role in global trade, many people are drawn to a study of Mandarin for what Yu Chin describes as “pragmatic reasons.”
“A lot of my students got their jobs because they know a little of the Chinese language,” she said. “That’s a big bonus.” But she emphasized that knowledge of Mandarin as a business tool is only one reason to learn the language.
Along with that learning comes a better understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture, a civilization that was already thousands of years old when America declared its independence from Great Britain.
“You learn how to interact in the culture,” Yu Chin explains.
Instead of an alphabet, written Chinese uses characters to express objects or ideas. Chinese is a tonal language, with four tones conveying different meanings for the same characters. Grammar is straightforward.
In her classroom, Yu Chin integrates listening, speaking, writing and reading skills with an emphasis on conversation and completion of everyday tasks or goals. For instance, students learn how to buy an apple or make a dinner appointment in Mandarin, typically working in pairs.
“These are authentic, daily life tasks,” Yu Chin explains.
She also teaches ways to “deconstruct” Chinese characters; while there are about 80,000 characters, only about 2,000 are in frequent use, and these are composed of about 100 individual components or “radicals.” (By comparison, most English speakers know about 42,000 words, of which about 3,000 are used most frequently. All told, there are more than 171,000 words in English.)
By recognizing individual components, students learn to interpret the meaning of entire characters. For instance, “electric” and “brain” means “computer.” “Electric” and “shadow” means “movie.”
“You see the same characters, the same radicals, again and again. It’s not as complicated as you thought,” Yu Chin observes.
“Students come for pragmatic reasons, but then they realize that they enjoy a language and culture that’s so outside their lives – that’s what I like, when students have that ‘wow’ moment.”
This first year of Mandarin at CGCC will focus on introduction to the language and informal conversations with friends in the fall term, travel and shopping in the winter term, and doctor visits and social occasions in the spring term. The college hopes to offer a second, more advanced sequence beginning in Fall Term 2019.
For information, visit cgcc.edu or call (541) 506-6011.