Earlier this month we caught up with Barry Ferguson, who has been learning Mandarin with Discovery Languages since April.
Photo credit: Jen Owens
Why did you decide to study Mandarin?
“This coincided with lockdown, supporting my son who also needed something to focus on. I would like to visit China in the future and learn a bit more about it. It will maybe come in useful in my job. It’s a bit different! I could have chosen an easier language, but this opens up the culture, for example learning how the characters are formed.”
“I expected to do just to ten weeks and then that would be it, but I kept going. My son will be sitting the Chinese HSK1 exams. I see it as a really positive experience, and it has kept us sane during lockdown. During the full lockdown earlier in the year, it provided an anchor point in the week and some structure.”
What is your day job?
“I am charge of fundraising at V&A Dundee. We are a charity and need to raise over £1 million per year towards the running costs.”
How might the Mandarin lessons help you with your job?
“At V&A we fly the flag for Scotland internationally. There are opportunities when the Chinese Consul General has visited the museum, and there will be future exhibitions. There are big markets in China for Scottish companies. China is the world’s second biggest economy and it is important to develop business links and cultural business diplomacy. They are potential partners, and it would be useful if there are Mandarin speakers from the V&A side.”
How did you find online learning?
“I’ve never done online learning and it took a while to get into to. It’s a slightly different way of learning but you definitely get used to it.”
“There are mental health benefits and a general focus that takes you away from work for 90 minutes. You need to concentrate but afterwards I feel rejuvenated and refreshed.”
What about the tutor?
“She is such a nice person, cheerful and smiley. The lessons are a joy – even when the topic is difficult! She is a large part of the enjoyment. In normal times there would have been more social events and experiencing things that we are talking about in class. For example during the Moon Festival, she told us she would have made moon cakes for us in the class. The plan is to go for a meal to a Chinese restaurant when the lockdown is ended and all the students will order their meal using Mandarin!”
What happens in a typical lesson?
“In a typical lesson there is often a video about an aspect of Chinese culture. We use a standard text book from the Confucius Institute, HSK1. We do exercises in the book and also quizzes and additional vocabulary. The lessons are not just about passing the exam but this is an option. It would be very useful if I went to China for work.”
“The language is like nothing else that I have experienced. In European languages there are usually some words that you recognise. With Mandarin, there are no similarities. The tutor adds a lot of her own experiences and the sessions contain a good mix of activities. For ninety minutes you must concentrate really hard.”
Is it difficult?
“Yes, it’s difficult. This is because it’s so different to what we have experienced. It looks different. First you have to learn the pin-yin system which is a phonetic version of the sounds in Mandarin. We learned it in three or four weeks. In this way you get as close as possible to pronouncing the sounds. Mandarin has tones, and the same word can be pronounced completely differently and have a different meaning. Mandarin grammar is easier though as the vocabulary is more important. Now I am starting to recognise Mandarin characters and it makes sense. It’s so interesting and the initial hurdle is outweighed by the fascinating aspect of the language.”
Are you good at learning languages anyway?
“I’m not particularly good at languages. I have done French before and I can get by in France. Learning Mandarin has given me confidence that if I can learn this, I can learn other languages.”
Would you recommend learning Mandarin with Discovery Languages?
“I would definitely recommend it! It’s really interesting, a good brain workout, and you learn about a different culture in a deep and meaningful way.”
“Mandarin is the language which English speakers should be learning now!”