#WOW Cathal Deehan tells Way out West all abouthis joruney studying Mandarin Chinese at South West College.

When I found out that South West College were offering Mandarin Chinese I immediately signed up. I had studied a little bit years before, but it was long forgotten, and, if I'm honest, I was surprised that the classes were available locally; normally the demand for non-European languages meant that you needed to be in a big city to find classes - but now that's not the case.

The classes at SWC are geared towards preparing students to sit the HSK exams. These are graded language exams (from 1 to 6), endorsed by the Chinese government, that are certified and recognized internationally. In my first year with SWC I was in a class with two others: one a secondary school student looking to open up opportunities for studying in China, another a new grandmother looking to learn some phrases to communicate with her son's Chinese in-laws. It was great to see people of all ages and motivations choosing to learn something new.


HSK1 is a gentle introduction to MC, suitable for everyone no matter their experience with foreign languages, and perfect for anyone who just wants to satisfy their curiosity. The language is introduced using a phonetic, romanized script called pinyin, rather than diving into the characters. The major challenge initially is getting to grips with how the language sounds. Some of the sounds are similar to ones we use in English, but some are not. On top of that, Mandarin is tonal, which means that the same sound can be given different meanings based on the tone you use to say it. This is fascinating, but also very tricky, so it's worth investing time at the start to learn and practise them as best you can. Anyway, together with the help of our teacher we all passed HSK1.

The following year I decided to take it a little more seriously. HSK1 had refreshed what I had learned before so I requested to jump to HSK3. SWC and my new teacher, Mrs Wu, were exceptionally accommodating and supportive, and it was this year that the benefits of studying with SWC really came into their own - I was the only student sitting HSK3, and benefitted from individual classes from an expert, native teacher.


HSK3 was a big step up - it's the first level where you are expected to read Chinese characters without the help of pinyin. There is a focus on learning to read and write, as well as more advanced grammar and vocabulary. Rather than an alphabet, MC uses combinations of thousands of different characters to form words. It takes a lot of time to learn even the first 600 or so that you need for HSK3, but it's a very satisfying feeling to finally be able to read a page of text written only in characters.

I passed HSK3 that year and then progressed to HSK4 with yet another fantastic teacher, Miss Liu, before my studies we were interrupted last year. Now, in 2021, I am once again resuming classes online with SWC and hoping to recap and continue the journey.

If you are considering learning anything this year, then I can't emphasize enough the excellent opportunities on our doorstep at SWC, in particular if you're interested in learning Chinese. Whether it be for fun, travel, study, business or cultural understanding - learning Chinese is a unique and rewarding experience and I would certainly encourage anyone interested to go for it!