Mandarin rolls off Mumbai’s tongue

Mohini Chaudhuri | Updated on January 17, 2018

Chinese takeaway: Usha Sahoo’s Yeh China Mandarin classes in Mumbai attract a large number of children Photo: Paul Noronha

City of Dreams sees its next big opportunity in talking the language of global power China. From three-year-olds to professionals, hundreds are signing up for classes

It’s a frighteningly rainy Sunday morning. The streets of Mumbai are practically deserted. A school in Bandra West is empty and quiet. But as you climb its forlorn staircase, you can hear the strains of what sounds like chanting. Inside one of the classrooms is a group of 10 adults reading aloud from their textbooks. Instructing them is a Chinese lady. Over the course of the next half-hour, she tells them how to order food, the names of vegetables, how to ask somebody for their phone number, the days of the week... all in Mandarin. As the class winds down, the students trickle outside. Gaurav declares it’s a Sunday well spent. His classmates nod in agreement. Gaurav had recently visited China with his wife and kids, and they were nearly turned back from an amusement park all because he didn’t know the language. He recalls using a fair amount of mime and line drawings to communicate with the ticket staff before being allowed in.

This harrowing experience isn’t the only reason he decided to learn Mandarin. “I work in the IT industry. I don’t need to know Mandarin currently, but in the future if I have to grow and be considered for a better position, knowing this language will help me. I may even get a foreign posting,” he says.

His classmate chimes in, “Given how powerful China is today, it’s important to understand how the Chinese think, and you can’t do that without knowing their language. I’ve always thought of them as very obscure people. They take a lot and give very little.”

Even as this batch of learners exits the school hallway, another batch is waiting to register for the course. All of them agree on one thing: “This is the language of the future.” Nazia Vasi had predicted this six years ago. She is the owner of Inchin Closer, the company running these Mandarin classes. A former business journalist, she had closely monitored multinational companies moving to China before expanding into India between 2004 and 2005. She moved to Shanghai for three years to learn the language and founded her company in partnership with Xiaojie Wang in 2010. It’s only in the last three years that she’s noticed a spike in business.

What began with one class every Saturday has now mushroomed into 45 beginner’s classes, 20 intermediate, and 7-8 advance classes.

Each course typically consists of a weekly two-hour class spread over six months. The fees range from ₹28,000 for the beginners to ₹21,000 for the advanced level.

“With a lot of Chinese companies coming into India, the demand for people who speak English, Hindi and Mandarin is very high. You need somebody to communicate with the Chinese management and Indian staff. Because there are few such people around, their salaries are very high,” says Vasi. Trade between the two countries has been expanding annually at 15 per cent since 2007, according to trade body Confederation of Indian Industry. It adds that over the past 13 years, 142 Chinese companies have invested $27 billion in India in sectors such as automotive parts and consumer electronics. “I get a lot of learners from the financial space, as also a lot of traders buying and selling mobile phones, belt buckles, bags. Lawyers come in, as well. They need to talk to Chinese clients to help them set up base in India,” Vasi says.

Usha Sahoo, founder of Yeh China, says she is hardly able to cope with the rising demand for her Mandarin speaking classes. In 2008, this Mumbai resident started off in a small way by teaching a few friends from her apartment complex at a nearby pre-school building. The graphics for her curriculum books were designed by her young son. Today Sahoo outsources Mandarin curricula to 17 schools, including the American School of Bombay, Ecole Mondiale World School, DY Patil International school and VIBGYOR.

More than 10 years ago, when she first moved to Mumbai, Sahoo couldn’t find a legitimate Mandarin course. It was a language she had taken a fancy to. She finally travelled to a university in Thailand — the most economical option available at the time — for the course. Like Vasi, she too caters to learners in a wide range of sectors, from pharma companies and airlines to furniture makers.

Not all her students are professionals though, with some as young as three. “My most popular category is for elementary kids, aged four to seven. We have 240 kids enrolled,” says Sahoo, who has also authored teaching material specially tailored for children. “In the beginning, convincing a school principal to introduce Mandarin was hard. But slowly, through the children, even the parents became interested in learning it.”

Swati Chheda’s six-year-old daughter has been learning Mandarin from Sahoo for two years now. “Even I have learnt a few Chinese words from my daughter and it’s really fun. Like me, many parents are getting their kids to learn Mandarin early on because we can see how important China is becoming in the world we live in. When we were in school, we had the option of learning Spanish, French or German. But now that’s an old concept,” she says.

Mandarin is a phonetic language with four different tones, which can be tricky to grasp. Vasi explains that a word like ‘Maa’, for example, can mean both mother and horse, and is differentiated by the tone in which you say it. Typically, younger students pick it up more easily.

Learning new languages also helps expose children to different cultures and societies — a valuable asset in today’s globalised world, says Vasi. “A lot of the parents are businesspersons who likely have interests in China, so they want their children to learn the language early and be prepared to take over the family business in the future.”

From three-year-olds to older professionals, amchi Mumbai is saying it with Mandarin.

Published on August 26, 2016

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