And professionals, businessmen, executives and students are only too eager to respond, finds Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Nilesh Wairkar

Poonam Joshi at work

Ya Ya Ya.” “Yan Yan Yan.” “Wa Wa Wa.” No, this writer has not lost it completely just yet. He has just attended a Mandarin class. Yup, you heard right. We are in a classroom at Sharda Ashram Vidya Mandir with paint peeled walls and dilapidated desks and chairs (like almost any classroom), taking Chinese language classes. “In Mandarin, the pronunciation of the word changes its meaning,” stresses teacher Poonam Joshi (who was a resident in China for 10 years). Which is why software engineers, small businessmen, multinational executives, call centre employees and students are re-seating themselves in run-down classrooms and repeating eagerly after the ‘teacher’ to imbibe the language with only about 60,000 characters.
The Mumbai University doesn’t have Chinese classes, but hang on. “We’re on our way to making Chinese a degree course soon,” Mumbai University Pro Vice Chancellor Dr A D Sawant confides. “Some of my students (which incidentally have shot up by about four-fold in the last few years) hardly know English, even,” points out Joshi. But now they’re learning Men Da Rin, which is how you’d say Mandarin higher up.
A 16-year-old student, a near Chartered Financial Analyst, a would-be interpretor and a manager at Tata International Ltd… the class has, one dare say, a ‘motley’ spread. “All the figures say trade with China will increase. I’ve learnt Ger
man, but as a finance guy China seems the closest prospect now,” enlightens Loknath Char on his choice of subject. Chitra Ramani Raj (the manager) elucidates, “Image is all important for business today. And knowing the language of a country one’s trading with builds that.” “I’m learning French and Chinese together to get that career in translating,” comes from Jinisha Mehta. S Ramanathan, additional director at India-China Chamber of Commerce & Industry (which, incidentally, organises the class mentioned herein) believes those gulping the language of the Great Walled country can be categorised into three: “Executives and businessmen, those wanting to be interpreters and BPO employees.”
But Joshi has another perspective: “See, till now China was closed to us, but India wasn’t closed to them.” And so now, while the Chinaman knows more about the Indian way (media – take a bow), China’s hesitation so far in imbibing English makes it imperative for the Indian worker to know the languages before venturing in to get his best deal. But there’s more to this. “Promoting the use of Chinese overseas can help build our national strength,” pointed out Hu Youqing, a National People’s Congress deputy to China Daily. Which means China, like France, holds its language dear, unwilling to give in to English completely. And with good reason—one of every six people is Chinese! “But it’s mandatory now for schools and colleges to teach Eng
lish. Also compulsory for cab drivers and service industry staff to learn!” protests Chinese Consul to Mumbai Hong Cui. But ask Cui about the Chinese Confucius Institutes (teaching Chinese, naturally) sprouting up around the world and he says, “I feel there’s a possibility of one being set up in Delhi.” He also says: “We are considering getting more Chinese teachers to Mumbai.”
Now, back to Sharda Ashram Vidya mandir. “The thing you have to remember is the concept! Once that is gotten, these 60,000 odd characters fall into place quite scientifically!” preaches Joshi to her students. One reason for Hindi speakers picking the language up faster than the Goras, for instance, is the similarity in pronunciation: “Westerners have to learn to roll their tongues in ways they’re unused to first,” chirps Raj about her natural advantage. “I actually teach the characters associating them to the Hindi Barakhadi, and the Matras in Hindi have an equivalent here too,” admits Joshi. What does not find an equivalent in other languages is the “Tone”. “The only thing like that in our culture is the classical music Sargam!”
So with the wrong tone, ‘mother’ and ‘dog’ would be the same word, as would ‘teacher’ and ‘mouse’. “Imagine then, one not learning the language properly and speaking it via a guide book?” Joshi questions. You bet. Imagine also the person spoken to being a martial arts guru! But even those unwilling to undergo the one year character ridden course could take up Phinyin, which would ensure that you speak the language in six months. Sixteen-year-old Shantanu Pendse raises his voice to display more maturity than his years: “What with the increasing trade, Chinese is the right step towards my future in the business world.” Sigh. Such industry… Confucious would be proud.

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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