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How Mandarin has become crucial in Chennai

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The language has become a need-to-know for many Chennaiites, but the process of learning remains an intriguing challenge

India and China have always been on cautious terms, not completely seeing eye to eye on various security issues. The recent security cooperation pact signed by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Zhao Kezhi, Minister of Public Security of People’s Republic of China, who is currently on the last leg of his Indian visit, gives some hope of improved bilateral ties. However, none of this was on Arpitha TN’s mind when she started learning Mandarin two years ago. For her, it was all about business.

As an assistant manager at Flex, a sketch to scale electronics company in the city, her job demanded a lot of interaction with Chinese workers. “China has the maximum number of manufacturing sites. Ours is a global services centre here, and we place orders for electronic parts to be made in China,” says Arpitha, who decided to learn Mandarin to brush up her efficiency as a buyer. China’s reputation as a hub for manufacturing has resulted in a lot of trade between the two countries, explaining why, like Arpitha, so many Chennaiites have turned to learning Mandarin in the past five to eight years.

Over time

“Most of our Mandarin students are either business people dealing with Chinese imports and exports, or professionals in engineering companies, or engineering and medical students,” says Sandip Dang, founder of INaWORD language school. “In the past three years, we have seen a huge growth in the number of students applying here, as the opportunities for business with China are increasing.” In the rising trade war between the US and China, India may end up being a happy winner as Indian exports to China increase.

“It’s just basic sense that when you talk to people in their own language, it smoothes your business relations,” says Arpitha. Before she joined the voluntary Mandarin classes at Flex, she noticed that most of the Chinese suppliers were uncomfortable with phone calls.

“Because of the language gap, sometimes it happened that even during critical discussions, the call would end abruptly, and they would prefer continuing the conversation over emails,” she says.

Small talk makes a world of difference: “Now that I can speak Mandarin, we include pleasantries in our conversations… We wish each other on festivals, and holidays, and that means a lot to them. I could feel the responses coming in faster, with greater enthusiasm.”

With over 3,000 pictorial characters to memorise, Mandarin is widely regarded as one of the most difficult languages to master. Flex’s Mandarin trainer, Anshumita Sahoo explains, “Mandarin is a tonal language; the same word in a different tone would change its meaning. ‘Ma’ with a flat sound is ‘mother’. But if you say it with a rising, sharp note, it becomes a curse!” She adds that the pronunciation of the Roman alphabets is also different: ‘z’ becomes ‘ts’, and ‘j’ becomes ‘ch’.

INaWORD’s Mandarin teacher, Sampath Kumar agrees. “Most students come in with a huge question mark on their faces. But once they start to understand the logic behind the pictorial characters, they get into the rhythm of it.”

Breaking it down

Anshumita, who has taught over 250 students so far, first teaches her students the Romanised version, and then the Mandarin script. “The primary level would involve greetings and basic communication: everyday words related to the field they are working in. As they progress, they learn the characters related to their business,” she says.

The script is Mandarin as taught in Mainland China, she says, explaining that Classical Chinese is used in Taiwan, and Cantonese in Hong Kong.

It is also essential to get the etiquette of speech right as well, she says. “We watch Chinese movies to understand their culture. You need to know what’s polite and what’s not.”

The article is the second in a series exploring how the demand for learning Eastern languages is rising in Chennai.

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Corrections &  Clarifications: This article has been edited post publication

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 11:46:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/how-mandarin-has-become-crucial-in-chennai/article25321543.ece

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