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East by South-west — they’re learning Chinese in Dingle!

May 30, 2013

Graham Clifford visits the Kerry school teaching Mandarin to Gaelgoirs.
A minor linguistic error could get you in serious trouble
In school I wasn’t exactly what you’d call ‘a natural’ when it came to languages. A long-suffering French teacher said that she soon realised I was Kerry’s answer to René from ’Allo, ’Allo!

An Irish teacher described my sentence structure as “seafóid” or nonsense and after three years of studying German all I could say with certainty was “Ich bin irisch und Ich spreche nicht gut deutsch!”

So as I approach the majestic driveway leading to Coláiste Íde just outside Dingle, the nerves are jangling. Palm trees pass me by on either side as I make my way through woodlands before reaching the main building.
I’m here to learn my first few words of Chinese — but through Irish. I passed my comfort zone some miles back by Inch beach.

I remember reading once that scholars in Kerry’s hedge schools learned to speak and write perfect Latin through Gaelic and I try to invoke their spirits as I walk towards the doors of this idyllic boarding school for girls with its 127 students.
The West Kerry Gaeltacht wouldn’t be the obvious setting for Mandarin Chinese classes but in a cosy classroom I meet 20 young ladies who have been familiarising themselves with the language of the mighty land to the East.

I get a bilingual welcome (in Chinese and Irish) but when asked if I’d like to be spoken to “as Gaeilge nó as Béarla” I opt for the latter.
I’m hit with a dart of guilt similar to that experienced when opting for English when given the option at a cash machine.
The teacher, Joan Lyne of Annascaul, reassures me that Chinese is not too difficult to learn and that I’ll pick up a “cúpla focal”.
“There’s no grammar, it all sounds mad, it’s interesting and fun. There are only four different tones.”

The girls are ready for action with copy books opened in front of them featuring complicated-looking Chinese characters or letters. Someone produces chop sticks. I’m interrupting their study-time and that’s the real reason for the buzz in the room!
This area isn’t exactly a Chinese stronghold, explains Joan. “There used to be a Chinese family living in Dingle. I was going to ask that family to come in to help the girls learn the language but they moved just before we started the course.”
“So have any of you used Chinese outside the classroom?” I ask the students.

A host of replies come back simultaneously. “I went in to a Chinese restaurant to say hi in Mandarin but it was an Irish person working there,” says one.
Another, who displayed similar bravery, added: “We met a Chinese lady and were able to introduce ourselves in the language. We also tried to order food but that didn’t go so well. The woman was talking so fast and that went right over our head. But in return we taught her how to say ‘dia dhuit’.”
I’m starting to think I could get the hang of this. Instead of pointing at number 22 in my local takeaway, I could confidently stroll in, exchange pleasantries with the staff and then request my favourite dish.

But then I discover that a minor linguistic error could get you in serious trouble with the mammy.
Joan explains: “There are four different ways of saying the word ‘ma’. Saying it at the end of a sentence can turn it into a question; ‘ma’ can also mean your mother … depending on the tone that’s over the letter ‘a’. If you use one of the dipping tones, ‘ma’ can mean ‘ horse’ so if you get it totally wrong you could easily call your mother a horse!”

Mollaí Nic Suibhne from Dingle has developed a grá for the language and she gives me some background to how it’s written.
“There are two ways of writing. There’s the original way with the brush stroke, and then there’s the way of writing it with European letters — then it’s written as it sounds; it’s called Pinyin.”

I nod as though I clearly understand — I was always a half-decent actor.
Using an interactive teaching package designed by the Chinese institute at UCD, Joan informs the fifth-year students here about Chinese culture as well as about the language.

She’s added some of her own touches, too, from her year spent studying Chinese in UCC. These include an ‘amhrán náisiúnta’, or national song, which the Chinese play in place of their national anthem at sporting events such as the Olympics.
In the surreal setting of a Gaelscoil on Dingle Bay on a wind-swept evening, I’m serenaded in Chinese by 20 young ladies! The song is called ‘Jasmine Flower’ and dates back to the 18th Century. It says “Fragrant flowers filled theair/ Beautiful blossoms everywhere /Choosea blossom white and pure /Give to the one that you adore.”
I’m interested to find out if the girls, who received certificates as part of the Gaisce President’s awards for learning the language, feel that knowing some Chinese could be a major asset down the line.

Local women Catherine Ní Dhubháin, Siobhán Ní Mhaoildhia from Tipperary, and Cork’s Gráinne Ní Shearta believe it could be the language of the future.
“It’s unique and it’s growing,” they say, adding, “It really should be brought into the main curriculum. I mean, they’re (the Chinese) taking over the world. The jobs, technology and IT are in China.

“For the purposes of trade, it could be really useful to speak some Chinese but continue to live in Ireland.”
I ask Joan if issues such as human rights in China are discussed with the students. “We dipped into it a bit … things like the one-child policy and abortion. They have loads of questions; these girls are so curious.”
I step back into the West Kerry night with ‘Jasmine Flower’ still ringing in my ears and a phrase which will shock the owners of my local Chinese takeaway — “wo bú shì Zho-ngguórén” — it translates as “I am not Chinese” … they would never have guessed!