South Africans are saying ‘Ni hao’ to Mandarin

2013-06-09 14:01

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Today’s Mandarin lesson at the Wits Language School in Johannesburg begins before the teacher even steps foot into the classroom.

The seven students – of all ages and backgrounds – are debating whether or not it makes sense for a phrase from their homework to mean “you are not incorrect”.

“It’s like us South Africans, we are always saying ‘Ja no,’” one woman chimes in.

The class reflects a growing number of South Africans learning Mandarin, influenced by both the number of Chinese moving to South Africa as well as increasingly close business ties between the two countries.

One student, Jurgens Lamprecht, sits in the back of the class dressed in a traditional black Chinese garment.

Lamprecht travels to China two or three times a year to train in the national sport, wushu – known elsewhere as kung fu.

But he is not Chinese. Navigating the country can be complicated, he tells me, because he does not speak the language and has so far relied on interpreters. Lamprecht is taking the classes to prepare for his trip in June.

“Mandarin is really growing. China has become a world influence and it is going to be helpful to manoeuvre around the language and the people when I’m there,” says Lamprecht.

Trish Cooper, coordinator for African, Asian and European languages at Wits, says the Mandarin department has grown rapidly during the past two years.

Now the class is just as popular as French. Some students are South African Chinese and want to learn the language of their grandparents, Cooper says. Another recent student developed computer games and had lots of Chinese business connections.

Frank Diener works for South African freight logistics company Röhlig-Grindrod.

He took Mandarin courses at a local language institute, Language Works, to help him do business with his Chinese counterparts. “Going forward, Africa will be speaking Chinese in a few years,” says Diener.

The Chinese language is also being promoted among some young children.

Leisl Algeo recently started a bilingual programme that offers both Mandarin and English to children aged between 18 months and six years.

She founded Montessori Sky Schools after “desperately” wanting her two young sons to learn a foreign language before they turned six. Studies have showed that it’s easier to learn and retain a language before the age of six.

In addition to being a globally relevant language, she says, Chinese is important from a developmental point of view.

“Chinese is the complete opposite of a European language. It develops a different part of the child’s brain.”

Algeo’s son, Cole, is only four and a half years old. He is relatively close to fluency in Mandarin. This means he understands conversations and can communicate on a basic level.

His favourite word in Mandarin means leopard. Cole is dying to visit China and tells me he likes learning the language so he can “speak Chinese to Chinese people”.

When I ask Cole if he likes learning Mandarin, he stares at me for a few blank seconds before shouting, “Ni hao”. It means “Hello”.

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