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How I (sort of) learnt Mandarin in 5 hours

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Being locked in a room for five hours on the 17th floor of The News Building in London Bridge, and with an eccentric Mandarin teacher, is not how I imagined I would spend my summer holidays... and, yet, it is the most compelling experience I have had in a very long time.

Paul Noble is the aforementioned eccentric, nothing like the intimidating professor I expected to meet. In fact, Paul is more of a cynical hippie, channelling the personality of a whimsical old man. As soon as I arrive in the meeting room, Paul searches for bread and milk to make toast and tea and peers down at his brick-sized Nokia. Paul’s charming, genteel wife Kai-Ti giggles, telling him to stop being so frivolous.

Credit: Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash

Paul's quirkiness is out of the ordinary, but, applied to his teaching methods, it illuminates his passion for all things related to languages. He truly believes in his style of teaching, which throws old-style grammar out the window and replaces it with a light-hearted, practical approach which is much more captivating.

With help from his wife Kai-Ti, a native speaker, Paul has spent the last seven years developing a simple but logical Mandarin Chinese course. The aim: to teach anyone and everyone to speak Mandarin Chinese in the way it is truly spoken.

It is a huge goal, and I am determined to find out if Paul's method really works by attending his one-day taster course.

We start by learning the basics: simple sentences designed to lay down the building blocks of Mandarin. As a languages student, I hope that I might have an advantage over other students - a headstart, as it were.

However, Paul stops that idea in its tracks when he says, “Don’t remember anything. Just forget what I am teaching you”.

What? Most of my academic experience has been occupied by memorising endless lists of vocabulary and verb endings, so this statement goes against all my instincts.

Paul manoeuvres around my desire to memorise things by constantly distracting me with different conversations. We discuss language teaching in the British school system. We discuss foreign cities. We even discuss current affairs. Every topic is covered with ease and charisma despite Paul's sardonic humour.

Mandarin is a notoriously difficult language to master. The language is tonal, meaning that words may appear to be the same, but depending upon the inflection they could mean “buy” or “sell”, for instance. There is huge potential for confusion. With this in mind, I find the assurance that Paul would have me chatting in Mandarin after only a couple hours ridiculous. It sounds impossible.

Nevertheless, Paul’s method begins to work. He is softly spoken and endlessly patient, presenting me with new words and constructions in a manageable way. Kai-Ti repeats phrases back to me, enabling me to listen to the melodic tones of the sentences as they are spoken natively. Paul’s building blocks combined with Kai-Ti musical tones are helping to improve my Mandarin skills at a rapid rate without me realising it.

We don't use technical words because Paul believes the notion is pointless. “I look at grammar books and I know the content. I can teach the content, but the books make no sense”, he says. "You reduce the nouns you are forced to learn to enhance your basic understanding of how the language works, an ability that allows you to build and build."

I have a long way to go to complete my education in Mandarin Chinese, having only spent five hours with Paul. However, I already feel confident enough to order in a restaurant and I can speak in the first, second, and third person, about doing various activities, and I can handle these sentences in the past, present, and future tense. This in itself is a miracle. I have reached a stage that many people cannot dream to achieve within three years of learning German at a school. Moreover, Paul has made learning Mandarin fun and accessible.

I no longer view Mandarin as an unreachable language but instead a language that I fully believe I can learn to speak and enjoy.

Paul Noble’s ‘Learn Mandarin Chinese’ Complete Course is available on 4th October and is published by Harper Collins.

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