In Mandarin, choosing the right word for 'mom' can be a minefield
by: Vern Uyetake, Andy Wang, a teacher in the Lake Oswego School District, explains part of a lesson to student Matthew Salser during the district’s new beginning Chinese class on Monday at Lake Oswego High School.

There's a major lesson all English speakers should learn before they travel to Beijing and attempt to elbow their way onto a crowded subway car.

The phrase 'Please excuse me' in Mandarin, China's official dialect, can also mean 'Please kiss me,' depending on how it rolls off the tongue.

If the pronunciation is wrong, the speaker can expect to get odd glances from passengers - instead of room to move.

'Tones are very important,' said Andy Wang, a Chinese immigrant who came to the United States in 2004. 'I believe many people cannot even hear it. I have to stop and correct them.'

Tones, a fundamental part of Mandarin (spoken mainly in northern and southwestern China), also make the language all the more difficult to learn. Wang explained this aspect of Mandarin during his first week teaching a new Chinese class at Lake Oswego and Lakeridge high schools. 'Ma,' for example, can mean 'mom,' 'plant,' 'horse' or 'to curse.'

'You wouldn't want to confuse them,' he said with a smile.

Starting this year, the Lake Oswego School District nixed German for Chinese as a way to prepare students for the inevitable stronghold China will have on the future world economy.

It's one of a few districts across Oregon to offer the course, which is taught by Wang, a former Chinese tutor who relocated to Lake Oswego for the job.

The classes are full at both high schools, which also offer Spanish, French, Japanese and German (only at the high level).

To begin the semester, Wang gave each student a Chinese name based on the pronunciation of their English name.

By the second class, students presented lessons on Chinese history and culture and began going over writing and pronunciation of simple phrases, such as 'Hello teacher,' 'Give me the book,' and, what may become a crucial phrase, 'I don't understand.'

Soon, Wang realized he had to slow down his progression through the coursework.

'It's not their fault,' he said about the students' rough start. 'They have to practice, practice, practice. But they also have a lot of enthusiasm to learn.'

Wang, who taught English in China for many years, understands the growing relationship between Asia and the United States.

A majority of Chinese citizens know some level of English, he said, while Chinese remains an 'unpopular' language in the West.

The need for more Chinese speakers in American business has become more and more apparent to Lake Oswego resident Scott Darling, who travels to China several times each year on business.

Darling, whose daughter Elizabeth attends Forest Hills Elementary, helped establish two fee-based Chinese classes at the school a few years ago and played an instrumental role in working with administrators to bring Chinese to the secondary level.

Darling, the vice president of Intel Capital, sees the courses as an investment in the future. People with native language skills will have the upper hand and will assume powerful positions in China, he added.

'It really made sense for (Chinese) to be available in the school system,' he said. 'What's different today is that the world is globalizing at an unbelievable rate. We all know this inherently ... (China) is going to be a very powerful economy ... I would take those odds as a bet.'

Darling hopes students can learn the language in elementary school, where they're more apt to grasp pronunciation, and then move up ability levels through high school and possibly college.

'I think it's absolutely wonderful and a huge win for parents in Lake Oswego,' he said. 'It will be critical in years to come.'

Familiarity with Chinese varies among the students in Wang's classes. Some students grew up in Chinese-speaking households, while others are completely inexperienced.

Shelby Farrar, a LOHS senior and future linguistics major, enrolled in the Chinese course to add to her already deepening foreign language knowledge.

'Translators will be in high demand,' explained Farrar, who hopes to attend a college with a rigorous language program.

'I really love foreign languages, because they're so beautiful,' she said.

Still, even with her experience, Farrar finds Chinese extremely difficult to grasp.

Mandarin, like most Chinese dialects/languages, is syllable timed, as opposed to many Western languages, including English, which are stress timed.

'I just need to memorize it,' she said. 'At one time, I wanted to know seven languages. I was obsessed. Now, if I do become fluent, it will be because I live in a different country.'

The class marks LOHS sophomore Spencer Gibson's first attempt at learning a foreign language - a challenging one at that.

'That doesn't mean I'm going to wimp out,' said Gibson, who looks forward to writing Chinese.

'Both of my parents said, 'That's a hard class. You better not fail it or any other class because of it,'' he added.

By the end of the year, Wang hopes his students will be able to visit China and at least get by with what they learned. His ultimate goal is to prepare students to pass the entrance exam to study Chinese at Portland State University.

'Eventually, they'll be able to recognize 300 characters and write them,' he said. 'If they just know something about it, like how to read a Chinese news report, I'd be happy about that.'

And next year, he'll also be happy to teach Chinese II, so long as there's ample interest.

Go to top