I’ve got a little while to wait until a video finishes processing at work, which means it’s time for one of my ‘ten minute stream of consciousness’ posts. Apologies for the poor quality and ponderous style that will inevitably follow…

Thank you Alessio Rastani. Two days ago I started Chinese classes, and it’s all because of you.

It’s something I’ve been talking about doing for a long time, generally fueled by the seemingly ever-increasing numbers of Chinese students we have here at university and the constant rise of the country as an economic force and consumer of energy (because environment and, latterly, energy is what I do to keep the wolf away from the door). I’ve been talking about going to classes for a couple of years now and always putting it off, citing a lack of time or a desire to focus more fully on my Japanese studies, which are personally much, much more useful. With the PhD out of the way now, however, I’ve found I have my evenings and weekends to myself again, so rather than perfecting landing computerised jets on my Mac I thought it more productive to get out of the house and do something constructive.

What really tipped me over the edge, however, was seeing the YouTube clip of Alessio Rastani, alias the ‘fake’ trader who appeared on BBC News scaring everyone witless by harping on about how Goldman Sachs ruled the world and how stockbrokers and traders love crashes. I’m not going to get in to a big discussion about whether this guy was for real or not, nor am I going to regale you with my feelings on hearing what he was saying – it didn’t really send me into a blind panic because I am a bit of a cynic at the best of times, and pretty much believed that was how the world worked anyway. No, the part of Rastani’s send up that really did strike a chord was his ambiguous statement ‘protect your assets’. I have no idea what that means, but interest rates are pretty low at the moment, and I know one thing I am good at – an ‘asset’ if you will – is learning and memorising stuff, then putting it into practice. With the glow from Alessio’s cheap suit and tacky tie still hovering in front of my eyes as I blinked, I logged onto the University of Edinburgh’s Languages for All website, got out my card and used some of the money I’d been saving, which had accumulated no interest whatsoever, to pay for a beginner’s course in Chinese.

Learning materials

This perhaps wasn’t the best way to start learning a language. Love, curiosity and enthusiasm are all good drivers for success at picking up a foreign tongue. Being a complete mercenary who wants to make more money in the future is not. Actually, to be fair, it wasn’t the desire to make shedloads of money that persuaded me to sign up for Chinese. Rather, it was quite simply the desire to just be able to have a job in the future, no doubt magnified by the gloomy forecasts for Europe that the media had been pumping out all week with levels of glee not seen since the Fukushima nuclear situation was at its peak. Whatever the reason, the key point was that I didn’t have the same immediate, personally-invested motivation to learn Chinese that I did for German at school and then Japanese in my postgraduate years. It was instead something that might come in useful in an as-yet-undetermined capacity at an unknown point in the future.

Signing up for the classes on what I call a considered whim turned out to be wise, because the lessons were already full and a new class had just been posted when I went to look (avid readers will remember I got Chelsea tickets in a similar fashion). Next time I looked after booking, the new class was full too. Despite my haste and lack of deep enthusiasm, I found myself getting excited after booking – it had been some time since I’d started to learn something completely new, after all. I knocked off work forty minutes before class started, and made my way to the Confucius Institute of Scotland through the glorious setting sun on my bike.

Chinese classes are taught at the Confucius Institute for Scotland, housed in the University of Edinburgh’s Abden House building. As the name suggests, the Institute is a big old house pretty much at the foot of Arthur’s Seat. Twenty-five minutes before classes started, students were already trailing their way up both sides of the secluded street leading up to the Institute. I came hammering up the middle of the road on my knackered old bike, blasted between the stone pillars at the entrance of the driveway at full speed, and immediately had to slam on my brakes to avoid knocking over a six-foot bronze statue. Once I’d stopped I realised I was in the middle of an expansive and well-kept garden, with a staggering array of plants and trees, and a large bust of the great philosopher himself looking out sagely from next to the entrance. The shiny brass plaque on the entrance pillar should have been a give-away. Next time I’ll get off and push from there.

I found somewhere to tie up my bike and made my way inside. The Confucius Institute was deadly quiet. The rich wood panels on the walls and thick carpets seemed to soak up my heavy breathing and even heavier footsteps, the product of a combination of apprehension, a late departure from work and general unfitness. A neatly printed sign had been Blu-Tacced to the glass paneled inner door, welcoming all students to the Institute and detailing the rooms for our classes.

Just ahead of me, a sturdy door lay ajar on top of another thick carpet. From behind the door came the gentle sound of low chatter, accompanied by a whiff of olives and some light clinking. As a recently-finished postgraduate well trained in getting a free feed, I knew this signified only one thing. A wine reception. How civilised, but given the status of the building, I (wrongly) assumed it was a reception for something else, such as the celebration of new links between Edinburgh and somewhere in China or the inaugural lecture of a professor. Heading upstairs, I clocked the room where my class was supposed to be and poked my head round the door to be met with polite applause. A general interest lecture finishing off. Back downstairs, I was ushered into the wine reception by a member of staff, assured that it was a welcome reception for new students of all levels. To be completely correct, I wasn’t sent to the same room I saw when I came in. No, I was told to go to another room replete with an elegant mural of a bird sitting on some tree branches on the furthest away wall, where a completely new set of wine glasses, portions of orange juice, and plates of crisps, nuts, brie and grapes awaited. Apparently the first room was ‘a bit full’ so they’d laid on another room. I eschewed the wine and availed myself of a glass of juice. Learning and speaking languages half-cut is generally a good idea as it relaxes you somewhat, but you do need to have some basic competency first. Having confidence is all very well as long as you have something to be confident about, and I at this point had no Chinese whatsoever.

I chatted to some Masters students who had been learning Chinese for many years, then made my way upstairs for the start of class. The teaching floor had white walls and parqué flooring, and by the door to our teaching room was an IKEA glass cabinet filled with crystal and gold awards the Institute had won. Examples of Chinese caligraphy – and, alongside them, poster representations of Chinese contemporary art – hung from the walls at various points. I was encouraged to take a seat with the other dozen or so keen language learners that had signed up.

A thick A4 landscape textbook slid my way across the table, accompanied by a CD. The textbook, which featured a plastic cover, hard back and proper binding, was a meaty tome that would cover our first term’s lessons. I’d made statistics textbooks half the thickness last a whole year, so understandably I was a little concerned, and also excited, about the speed at which we’d be learning. As the rest of the class trickled in, a massive flat-screen TV was wheeled out and connected to the teacher’s MacBook, beaming the lesson’s aims and objectives out across the whole room.

What followed in the next two hours was a strange mixture of entertainment, confusion and agony. The only expression I could think of at the time to describe the class was ball-breaking, but in a good way. “This is pushing my brain’s functions to their absolute limits – and then some,” I confided to the guy sitting next to me, who seemed relieved to see he wasn’t the only one fighting to keep pace. We grappled with new sounds, strange expressions and a totally different philosophical approach to syntax, expending a phenomenal amount of energy over just learning how to introduce ourselves and politely ask our classmates what their names were. Our teacher patiently listened on as we made a sterling effort to murder a highly nuanced system of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary developed over thousands and thousands of years, encouraging us at every opportunity and only very occasionally stepping in to correct our mistakes. Her calm and patient manner, explaining everything throughly and clearly whilst taking time to answer the questions that inevitably followed, marked a stark contrast to the chaos that was going on in my brain as I battled to regurgitate phrases I’d been told only minutes ago to the people sitting either side of me.

Before we knew it it turned eight o’clock, the class finished and we groaned our way downstairs and out into the fresh air, a good few pages of homework in our satchels for next week. I’m sure the bronze bust of Confucius has a wry smile on his face at this time every year as he watches the new Chinese language students leave the Institute after their first class. The teacher had clearly done something right, though, because after I’d cycled home, had the mandatory ‘wee lie down’ to clear my frazzled brain and cooked dinner, I was able to remember everything we’d been taught (just about).

I don’t know whether taking Chinese classes is a good example of protecting one’s assets, or indeed if I even have any assets to protect, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the Confucius Institute. As well as picking up a new language, it’s also an excellent chance to meet new people from all walks of life. When one is getting up, going to work, coming home and then going to bed five or six days a week, one tends to get locked into meeting the same people, or at least the same type of people, week in, week out. Taking an evening class in anything at all, I’ve discovered, is a terrific way to meet a whole cross section of enthusiastic, friendly folk. I might not be ‘protecting my assets’, and I certainly won’t be learning anything about stocks and shares, but I’m sure there are far worse ways to spend time and money than having a crack at a new language with a great bunch of people.

More information on the university’s language classes can be found at www.ed.ac.uk/studying/short-courses/languages/for-all

More information on the Confucius Institute for Scotland can be found at www.confuciusinstitute.ac.uk

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