Learning Mandarin.

My brother Michael has just sent me a USB stick with lots of my very early posts from an old and defunct blog. Here is a post I had completely forgotten.

One enjoyable interlude in my illustrious career in the Army was a brief stay at the RAAF School of Languages at Point Cook in Victoria. I had applied to do a course in Mandarin because it would give me a chance to be sent overseas on some cushy assignment. And because I was quite good at lying through my teeth when it came to interviews I got the spot.

What I had failed to realise was that Mandarin not only has sounds but has tones. I will explain in a minute. Anyway, they taught a variety of languages there and because it was a military establishment most of the languages were for people with whom we were at war – like Vietnamese. Point Cook prided itself in claiming that in twelve months they could take a student and drop him/her into the target country and without any support the said student could talk his/her way out of it.

The story goes – and there was plenty of evidence to support it – that early in the war in Vietnam our major ally sent a group of soldiers who had a South East Asian look about them to learn Vietnamese. The people at Point Cook, asked the people in Washington what the men needed to know Vietnamese for. In the beginning the Americans didn’t trust anybody and wouldn’t answer any questions if they didn’t think it was any of our business. The people in Washington said that it was ‘need to know’ only and you Aussies don’t need to know, just teach them to speak Vietnamese like a native. So we did. And the men were dropped into Vietnam and were all captured within a few days.

When the people in Washington spat the dummy (Australian slang for ‘chucked the toys out of the cot’) they were told that it would have been handy if we’d known they were going into Nth Vietnam. The language teachers at Point Cook had taught them to speak with a Sth Vietnamese accent. Their language skills were brilliant. But their accent was the wrong one. Didn’t happen again.

Anyway, back to my story. The course was very intense and after six weeks one of my fellow students told the group that although he had studied Mandarin from Grade one to three years of a University degree we were now covering new ground. At the end of twelve weeks were given a hurdle test. Now a hurdle test is one where if you don’t make it, you go back to your unit. The pass mark was 95%. Now I mentioned before about tones. If I remember there are four tones in Mandarin. So when you pronounce a word – lets say “wu” you can give it a rising inflection. Or you can give it a falling inflection. Or you can give it a “U” shaped inflection. That is you start high, go low and then come back to high again. Or fourthly you give it a flat inflection. Now each of the four ways of saying “wu” is a different word. So the hurdle test was that I was an interpreter and the Chinese speaker was to talk to an English speaker and I sit between them and say what each one says.

So all goes to plan. Mr Tao asks Mr Smith, “What time do you eat your evening meal?” He said it in Mandarin. And I very cleverly repeated that question in English.

And Mr Smith asked Mr Tao the same question in return. And I very cleverly, in my best Mandarin repeated the question to Mr Tao .  “What time,” I said, “Do you eat your evening shit.”

I got the sound right. I got the tone wrong. Wrong word. Very wrong word. OOPS!

I went back to my unit and went on teaching Army Apprentices a little bit of Maths and English and Science.

But it was all good fun.

18 thoughts on “Learning Mandarin.

  1. Too funny! The English language gets me the same way sometimes…many years ago during my travels in Europe, I worked in a small guest house in Amsterdam and in the morning I needed to knock on every door and see if the guests are staying or leaving and if they need their sheets changed. You can see where this is going…

    Liked by 1 person

      1. So that is an opening for me to put my foot in it. I could ask questions that included words like Israel, Europe, Jewish, etc etc. My son is married to a Jewish girl but she is from South Africa. I could go on and on but I won’t.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I realised I had a bent for languages when I went to Europe. Sadly, not much call for them back here in Oz, so they are all rusty now. But some of the mistakes I have made! Such as complaining to my Italian landlady that the roof leaked. After some confusion and irritation on both sides, the light went on. ‘Oh!’ she said, ‘Let me explain the difference between IL tetto – and LA tetta.” I think you’ll get the drift . . .

    Liked by 1 person

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