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So You Want to Learn Mandarin Chinese?

Popularity 9Viewed 5579 times 2015-11-9 11:35 |System category:Life| Chinese

Hello again China Daily Blog! So much has happened since my last post here when I was a language student in Shanghai. After I returned back home to Canada after a semester of study, I went abroad to Brazil, finished my undergraduate degree and had another chance to study in Beijing this summer! Recently, I had been thinking of blogging again and have created a new blog under Blogger. This blogging platform is not accessible in China as it runs under Google. So I will post all my China related material in this blog in hopes of meeting new online users and re-establishing that fun experience I had nearly two years ago. Here is a recentlpost I wrote on learning Chinese. (edit, many of the sources I used in this post are not accessible in China, please message me directly if you are interested in obtaining the urls)

According to this info graph from Business Insider's article The Easiest And Most Difficult Languages for English Speakers to Learn, Chinese is one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn. The reason to why it is so difficult is due to the tonal characteristics of the language; the meaning of a word changes with different tones. In addition, there is an overwhelming number of characters to learn, According to BBC, there are over 50,000 Chinese characters, with a comprehensive modern dictionary rarely listing over 20,000 in use. An educated Chinese person would know roughly 8,000 characters, but one would only need a comprehensive knowledge of 2-3,000 characters to be able to read a newspaper. However, I find that not to be the case, as characters can be used together to form a new word with a new meaning. Despite the difficulty of learning this language, many people nowadays are becoming increasingly interested in taking up Chinese. There are many reasons for this trend, and depending on your geographical location, your interests and your career, you may understand why this is the case.

Source: Business Insider

Chinese is the #1 most spoken language in the world

According statistics, there are about 1.2 billion Chinese speakers in the world (including various Chinese dialects), with English trailing at position three with 3.4 million speakers.  Although the majority of the speakers are concentrated in one country, there is a high chance that there would be other Chinese speakers, weather they be tourists or locals wherever you go. 

China’s booming economy

The news that China has surpassed the US as the largest world economy has made headlines late 2014, causing quite a stir in economic and business circles. Although quite controversial, the powerful presence of China in today’s economy is not new news. According to Business Insider, the GDP of China is expected to surpass the US by 2026. Consequently, the rising presence of China’s economic power has lead to an interest by many businessmen likewise, in learning the country’s official language. 

Source: Business Insider

The widespread use of Chinese as an alternative language

Popular Chinese travel destinations, retail stores, supermarkets and airports now display signs written in Chinese as an alternative language. Airports such as JFK in New York, SEA in Seattle, YVR in Vancouver receive a high traffic of Chinese visitors and display signs with Chinese translations. Places in Thailand welcome Chinese tourists, with Patong Beach in Phuket, Thailand offering special discounts for souvenirs, restaurants, hotels and travel packages solely for Chinese tourists. Bangkok store owners call out Chinese phrases to promote their businesses. In Korea, some sales associates would speak to me in Mandarin. In my hometown of Victoria, Canada, a Tommy Hilfiger retail store displayed signs in English and Chinese.

The increasing number Chinese business people investing and establishing business around the world. 

The recent opening of China's economy has seen the country creating business ties with various countries. Cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, Canada, and Melbourne, Australia, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, U.S, have been experiencing a large increase of Chinese immigrants, businesses and investors within the past few decades.According to CBC news, China has overtaken Canada as U.S largest's trading partner. With news relating to my hometown, the Times Colonist recently reported Viking Air in partnering with a Chinese company in manufacturing as many as 200 Twin Otter airplanes within the next two decades. 

The alluring lifestyle as a language student/ working expat in Shanghai or Beijing

Glamorous nightclubs, cheap ethnic food, shopping paradises, towering skyscrapers, rowdy foreigner bars, scenic field trips and adventurous travels. The lavish pictures of the life of a Chinese language student or working expat posted on social media can make anyone turn green with envy.

Beijing- Houhai

Shanghai- Bar Rouge

Xi-an- rou jia mo (Chinese hamburger)


Shanghai- late night street food

Beijing Great Wall- Music Festival

However, the journey in learning Chinese isn’t by far the easiest path to take. It is definitely not like learning French, Spanish, Portuguese or any Latin based languages. According to the Business Insider info graph mentioned at the beginning of this post, it takes 2,200 class hours, 1.69 years or 88 weeks to achieve language proficiency. However, I believe that number is a bit too enthusiastic and is probably based on someone who is practicing on a daily basis on reading, writing, speaking and listening. Or, they are already immersed in the language, working or studying in China. Even as an overseas born ethnic Chinese who speaks primarily Cantonese at home, I still struggle with learning Mandarin Chinese. Stayed tuned, as in the next post I will touch base on the struggles of learning Chinese and what resources a Chinese language learner can use to facilitate and accelerate their learning. 

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Friends who just made a statement (4 Person)

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Comment Comment (9 comments)

Reply Report voice_cd 2015-11-10 10:49
Thanks for sharing your story here. We have highlighted your blog.
Reply Report guocheng2015cd 2015-11-10 13:34
The most difficult bit of learning chinese is probably the writing part. If just for picking up some daily conversations, it might actually be easier than most of the phonetic based languages as the number of syllables involved for conveying similar meaning is generally shorter and simpler in chinese(it's said to be  part of the reason East Asians are quicker in doing calculation). also grammar-wise much less to worry about. In many cases, chinese phrases not following grammatical order could still deliver message with no big difference from the grammatically correct one.

For those who have had the exposure to both the west and chinese culture, it's quite likely for them to have noticed that chinese seem to do things the opposite way from the west in some fundamental aspects, the most obvious for example, chinese name starts with family name first, chinese write the address from the biggest scope down to the smallest scope.  Name and address are the two most fundamental labels to define each individual's existence. The opposition in these basic aspects reflects opposite perspective in seeing the world, bear this in mind, it might be easier to appreciate and tolerate the other differences.  The Chinese language differs the most from the other languages in that the Chinese writing system is not phonetically based. This writing system is more based on sight-information and each character is densely loaded with information, making it a more stable system than the phonetic ones. The stability helps the chinese language to have evolved by assimilating different influences, whereas the phonetic-based system is more flexible for changes and the flexibility helps language to evolve by differentiation, which is why there are so many different languages and countries in Europe. The stable chinese writing system also forms the unity backbone for different Chinese dialects which may seem unintelligible with each other orally yet can still communicate smoothly by writing. Such concept is less ready to be formed for the phonetic based system.  Language unity helps bind the country intact.

Out of all the chinese dialects, mandarin is probably the most evolved spoken form hence the most pleasant to ears.  cantonese probably the most backward and least pleasant due to slower evolution as a result of warm weather and geo-segregation from the more civilized central China.  Cantonese took on the representative role for chinese for > a century after the British taking over Hong Kong after chinese losing the opium war in 1840s. Cantonese and mandarin is mutually unintelligible to each other. The modern chinese writing standard is based on mandarin, making it harder for cantonese native to learn. The Chinese standard in Hong Kong is affected negatively because cantonese instead of mandarin has been used as the medium of teaching instruction in school since the British intentionally went against the tide to make cantonese the official chinese standard in Hong Kong in 1972. At the same time Mandarin was prohibited from being used in school and media broadcast.
Reply Report kkkkkiko 2015-11-10 21:36
I major in business English and I think learning English is difficult for me. So, could you give me some suggestions about learning English?
Reply Report dfdfdf 2015-11-11 01:10
Try linking to MUUZZII through your phone - it uses text messaging for its translation service through a short call number.  Free trial - text #gowpfg to 97969.  Mandarin to English and English to Mandarin (and 38 other languages) works well.
Reply Report jsylam 2015-11-11 05:41
guocheng2015cd: The most difficult bit of learning chinese is probably the writing part. If just for picking up some daily conversations, it might actually be easier  ...
Thank you guocheng2015cd for the comment, it is very informative and complements well with this post!

I agree with Chinese, being a stable system, allowing speakers of different dialects to understand each other through writing. However, I would like to add that Latin based words are at times very similar, to an extent where similarities of a word with a  Latin backbone of some words are easily determinable. For example, livre (book in French) is similar to livro (book in Spanish and Portuguese). Allowing one Latin-based language speaker to easily learn another. However, I believe this is also the case with Chinese, Korean and Japanese, with its own backbone.
Reply Report jsylam 2015-11-11 05:49
kkkkkiko: I major in business English and I think learning English is difficult for me. So, could you give me some suggestions about learning English?
Hi kkkkkiko,

Thanks for the comment! I have encountered many people who tell me that they learned English by watching English movies and TV shows. It definitely helps when there are subtitles in both Chinese and English. This way, you will also learn idioms and modern day slang. Find a english language partner to practice your conversational english. I help a friend in practicing BEC (Business Engish Certificate) exercises. Reading books outloud also helps. Good luck with the English learning! I am currently practicing my Chinese everyday!
Reply Report guocheng2015cd 2015-11-11 11:42
It may seem a bit imprudent to say so but the back bone concept is really not that applicable to the Latin based languages. English origins from German but the two are now very different whereas a chinese from north east and a cantonese in the south can read the same piece of chinese newspaper without any problem.  Korean and japanese borrowed the chinese characters but they do not belong to the chinese language. Korean writing is phonetic based. Vietnamese also borrowed chinese characters but they seemed to use them in a phonetic way which is wasteful. They later adopted the Latin system after becoming French colony. That suits their mentality better. The cantonese in Hong Kong also attempt to use the Chinese characters in a phonetic way by inventing some 'cantonese-unique' characters to represent cantonese ways of saying. Most of These characters are aesthetically unappealing. They cast as pollution to the Chinese writing system and should be discouraged.
Reply Report kkkkkiko 2015-11-11 16:43
jsylam: Hi kkkkkiko,

Thanks for the comment! I have encountered many people who tell me that they learned English by watching English movies and TV shows. It ...
thank you
Reply Report teamkrejados 2015-11-15 09:19
China is a huge country, full of things to see and do! It's unfair to only mention life in Beijing and Shanghai    
Otherwise, great post!

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Jessica is a Chinese language student and has been staying in Shanghai since February 2014.


Recent comments

  • So You Want to Learn Mandarin Chinese? 2015-11-15 09:19

    China is a huge country, full of things to see and do! It's unfair to only mention life in Beijing and Shanghai    
    Otherwise, great post!

  • So You Want to Learn Mandarin Chinese? 2015-11-11 16:43

    jsylam: Hi kkkkkiko,

    Thanks for the comment! I have encountered many people who tell me that they learned English by watching English movies and TV shows. It ...
    thank you

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