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Norwich - On a Saturday morning in October, Ang Maio scribbled a few phrases on a whiteboard at Three Rivers Community College before turning to see five puzzled faces.
"Is this easier for you to understand, why they use qián here and hòu here?" she asked her students, gesturing toward the Mandarin phrases for "a year ago" and "next year."
The response was fast, and frank: "No."
In this Chinese class - taught by a Connecticut College sophomore and attended by a small group of local residents - bluntness is valued and lessons move at a leisurely pace.
The basic conversational phrases taught in the class aren't expected to lead to fluency, but the course is surprisingly affordable - free to anyone who pays the Chinese and American Cultural Assistance Association's annual $30 membership fee. A new class begins Feb. 1.
With the laid-back Mandarin lessons, the CACAA has attracted an interesting group of language learners: while a few earnest teenagers and 20-somethings have shown up to the classes, dreaming of studying abroad in China or international business opportunities, most of the regulars are retired folks.
Colleen Durga of Uncasville studies Chinese "to keep a baby boomer brain alive," she said after the October class. "Some people do crossword puzzles. I like languages."
But there's more to it than that, she explained.
Volunteering at Otis Library
Durga, along with her classmates Evan Shaad, Larry Ghirardi and John Provencher, are tutors with Literacy Volunteers of Eastern Connecticut, where they help non-native English speakers improve their language skills.
Many of them are native Chinese speakers, including a majority of the people seeking help at Otis Library in Norwich, where the four volunteer.
At the library, the volunteers use picture dictionaries and tiles with basic English words to help groups of non-native speakers form sentences and have simple conversations with each other. All conversations are held in English, and a volunteer's job is to facilitate conversation rather than to teach, explained LVEC Norwich Office Coordinator Eleanor O'Malley.
"There's teaching that goes on, but it's incidental," she added.
While tutors don't need to know a foreign language, said O'Malley, having enough knowledge for word substitution can help. But Durga, Shaad, Ghirardi and Provencher aren't just taking Mandarin to make the tutoring easier - they're trying to empathize.
"I figured it was only fair after torturing them that I should be tortured," explained Provencher.
"We can quit," added Shaad, but native Chinese speakers living in America have to persevere if they want to be understood. He remembers watching Chinese immigrants walk out of a CACAA English class just prior to his first Mandarin lesson four years ago.
"You could see some of them were frustrated," he said.
O'Malley called Shaad, a retired electrician, a "marvelous tutor" and sends beginners his way because he's "a very patient man." But the 72-year-old only became involved with LVEC after learning about it from his Mandarin classmates - his original motivation for learning Chinese was that he had spare time and "wanted to do some projects."
Shaad clearly found the right project. He's become something of a ringleader for the little group of Mandarin learners, promoting the class by hanging posters in Otis Library and fielding phones calls from interested learners during the winter break. He even set up a "classroom" in his basement of his Norwich for the group's study sessions.
"I didn't realize how little I knew," said Shaad, whose face lights up as he shares facts about China, the symbolism of Chinese characters, even comparisons between the language and Korean.
"I got into it and I couldn't get out," he said.
In class in October, when the teacher was reviewing the characters for time words, Shaad couldn't resist contributing to the lesson with a fact he'd learned during his own research.
"That left one - shí - that's the neatest character in the whole system," he said.
The first part of the character symbolizes the sun and the second means "inch." Together, they mean time - the steady inching of the sun across the sky.
"Who can think of a better definition?" asked Shaad. "That's better than anything in English."