Chinese Class: The Update

Thanks one and all for your comments, emails with suggestions on how to tackle Chinese characters, and general all-round supportiveness. You'll be relieved to know that the rest of this week's Chinese classes were not, on the whole, a fully-fledged disaster!

Joining Level 2.0 was like a breath of fresh air, and my classmates all smiled sympathetically when I told them I'd spent the whole previous day expanding my vocabulary in Level 4.4. The class is headed by Teacher Zhao, six months pregnant and her bump already so big she can't bend over properly. Her black frizzy hair is a little on the unruly side, and sweeps down from her centre part then sticks out from both sides of her head like the gables on a roof, beneath which peeks her round and lovely face. She's very encouraging and gives a lot of positive re-inforcement (a trait which may have been seriously lacking in that other class) and pleasingly has all her teeth so she's quite easy to understand, compared to Teacher Butterfly.

Teacher Zhao speaks only in Chinese, peppering it with the occasional English word we may not otherwise understand ('preposition', for example). By applying just a normal amount of concentration and brainpower to the lessons, I can understand all that is said, answer questions, and even occasionally drift off into a daydream and come back to the right point in the lesson without too much trouble.

My class is like a miniature United Nations - a Swede, a Dane, an Austrian, a Columbian, a couple of Germans, an American, an Englishman, an Indonesian and an Australian - only twelve of us in all, which seems a perfect number for very relaxed learning. Even better, we are all at exactly the same level of speaking and listening skills, and after our first dialogue practice yesterday Teacher Zhao called us 'all very excellent students'. From a Chinese teacher, (to whom praise does not come easily) that's like awarding all of us the 'student of the year' prize. I don't expect she'll say it again this year....

Reading is taken by the diminutive Teacher Wang, who looks like a tiny bird, her hair pulled back in a bun and her tiny frame swamped by long black pantaloons and a Hello Kitty t-shirt enlivened with purple sparkles. She flits around the classroom and alights at a desk to ask a question, then flies off to the blackboard, where long, long ribbons of Chinese characters appear from the point of her pen. I like her very much.

Chinese Characters is the final lesson for the week, and today we met Teacher Zhou for the first time. Luckily for me, character lessons only occur twice a week, because that's all my brain can cope with. I learnt the names of all the strokes today, the simple strokes, and the composite strokes, and the order in which they're written, then we practiced three characters. I approach writing a new character like copying a circuit diagram, that is, I have no idea what goes where or in what order, and the end result may be benign or lethal, depending on where I've misplaced a dot or a dash. This class will be the most difficult by far for me, and I haven't yet warmed to Teacher Zhou, who is very young but has seemingly already developed a completely hands-off approach to learning.

But you know what? I'm looking forward to next week. Better go out and buy a pencil case and some sharp pencils.

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