New Year, New Language

By David Irvine

Nǐ hǎo (hello), this new year has had me wanting to learn a new language and I thought, I would love to learn Mandarin. The place that got me wanting to learn, was my local Cantonese restaurant to order my favourite dish, honey chili chicken and rice with noodles. I thought how nice would it be to reply in their language for their hospitality and to show appreciation for being here in Northern Ireland with their family. To be able to respond to someone, who’s first language isn’t English, must sound heart warming and making them feel that wee bit closer to home.

I would often question my friend (Benny) who is from Hong Kong about their history and culture and food likes and asked does he prefers speaking in Mandarin or Cantonese; Cantonese he would say as mandarin is universally spoken in China and is used more often, and where he is from the Cantonese language is popular, although it can be quite difficult to learn it is spoken by the people of Hong Kong, Macau and the wider Guangdong province, including Guangzhou. I would ask how my friend to say thank you (xiè xiè) and goodbye (zài jiàn) with the proper pronunciation and his face would light up with gratitude. After that interaction and without further hesitation, I downloaded an app from the google store called “Duolingo” – it had over 100 million downloads – so I thought this looks like the right fit. Lessons are fun and inquisitive and I take fifteen minutes a day to learn words or numbers and compound them into sentences. Each day brings a new challenge and a new understanding of Chinese culture and language.

Deputy-First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left) and former First Minister Arlene Foster join Belfast’s Chinese Consul General, Madame Zhang Meifang, in 2020 celebrating Chinese New Year

People of Chinese origin first arrived in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Chinese is the largest non-native restaurant genre in Northern Ireland, as many of the first immigrants set up food outlets to make a living here. According to the Chinese embassy there are over 10,000 Chinese residents in Northern Ireland and the Chinese community constitutes over one quarter (29%) of all minority ethnic people in Northern Ireland and over 5,000 Chinese speakers too. Come one come all I say is my philosophy on life hope more Chinese residents decide to come to Northern Ireland.

I would watch vloggers or YouTube channels of bilingual people having conversations and thought, why shouldn’t I learn a new language to extend the olive branch to the Chinese community. My go to YouTube influencer for talking Mandarin speaking would have to be xiaomanyc (Arieh Smith) who speaks fluent mandarin, Cantonese, and other Chinese dialects like Fuzhounese all stemming from south-eastern provinces of China. He would candidly walk about Chinatown in New York and enter shops, restaurants or go to street vendors and talk to them in English and then he would verbally respond to some questions in mandarin to the bewildered yet funny interaction to the Chinese person. Fun to watch and makes for good light-hearted entertainment and educational at the same time. I find myself watching videos for hours; engrossed in these interactions, it would always leave me with a smile on my face and now my journey begins like the Great Wall of China. A long journey, but with the each step, opens another door on my discovery of the Chinese culture and their dialects.

YouTuber xiomanyc (Arieh Smith) who speaks fluent mandarin, Cantonese, and other Chinese dialects like Fuzhounese all stemming from south-eastern provinces of China

I hope by then end of 2022, I will be able to muster up conversations with our Chinese neighbours; I hope by even one person reading this that you also will take up a language to learn, whether it be Chinese or Italian or French or Spanish, there are many vibrant ethnic communities in Northern Ireland that have made the contribution of learning English, we should kindly return the gesture in small amounts or vast amounts depending on how far one wants to expand their vocabulary to be inclusive for all.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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