Learning Mandarin in China – On The Crest of A Wave

20 May

Learning Mandarin is a good idea mainly because of what China is going to become, not only because of what it represents today.

The best thing about China is without a doubt its potential. Don’t get me wrong. There are a great many things that I love about being in China. I love the food. I love the people. I love the fact that I can wake up, walk for 10 minutes and stand on Tiananmen Square. Going there always excites me. But nothing can compare to the fact that I am living in the heart of the greatest paradigm shift of our time. Beijing will in time eclipse Washington. There can be no doubt about that. It is a very strange notion that The United States will not forever be the dominant force in diplomatic and economic matters. It is even stranger that China, which has only very recently, in the last few years, stepped into the limelight will be the nation to contend for the title of the worlds most powerful country.

But as I said, there can be no doubt. Since the market liberalization strategy really kicked into gear during the early 1990’s Chinas economy has broken every record there is for growth and development. Double-digit annual growth rates have seen China’s output, income and expenditure double around every 7 to 8 years. The fact that this pace has been kept for 20 years makes China a growth miracle in every sense of the word. The rate at which China has been modernized is unrivaled in the history of mankind. This has not been as clear to many people as it has been after the economic crisis experienced by the west but not by China. China continued with its 10 percent growth when the west went through every kind of economic hell imaginable. A 10 % unemployment rate in The United States speaks volumes. The debt crisis in Greece that was the first in modern times to threaten a western government with the possibility of a default. Similar problem are even now haunting Ireland, Portugal and Spain. The possibility of default is manageable by the European Union if the problems are confined to the former two but not to the latter. If Spain was to prove unable to service its debts the European Monetary Union will need to be rethought. That would probably make the economic troubles to date seem like a pretty nice holiday. No one really has a plan for what do in that case. Meanwhile in China, there are not even clouds on the horizon. For the Middle Kingdom things have never looked brighter.

In 2010 China accounted for a full quarter of the total global growth rates. No one anticipated that 20 years ago, not 10 years ago and not 5 years ago. Today, to think of economics in any way, and not include China, seems to be the height of tunnel vision. China is everywhere. No market is unaffected by Chinas rise in some way. From basic commodities to increasingly advanced technology, they all have something do with Chinas growing appetite or Chinas ability to produce things cheaper than anyone and anywhere else. The Ipod may be though of in The United States, but it is almost entirely produced and assembled in China. The same goes for a lot of other things. Most things.

I recently listened to a great speech by a Swedish scholarship winner who was awarded to go to Shanghai for a year and work for The Swedish Trade Council there. He really captured the pervasive sentiment in China; to be in China in 2010 is like standing in Times Square at the turn of the last century. In 1990 the word was New York. The melting pot of ideas created miracles there. It was the port that most people from the old world arrived at. It was the symbol of a new dawning age where Europe was not dominant in the way it had been for hundred of years. The 20’s of the new millennium might just be that age for China.

Rui Ming works for a Chinese language school in China that is a great option for those that want to learn Mandarin. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin.


Learning Mandarin – Western Awareness of China

20 May

Learning Mandarin is more popular today then ever before – how does that fit in with modern history?

Learning Mandarin is becoming more and more popular with every passing year. It is hard to imagine it today but western interest in China and Mandarin is a very new development. In 2010 the Chinese government estimated that 100 million foreigners were actively pursuing proficiency, 20 years ago that figure would have been a lot closer to 0. The reason for the sharp increase in interest is of course the matching growth in the relative importance of China’s economy, its diplomatic stature and western awareness of China.

If you think of what China actually is, it is a very strange notion that we westerners were not more aware of China a long time ago. China is the fourth largest country by area, and by far the largest by population. The total head count of all Chinese people comes to above 1.2 billion, that’s more than 1200 million, or 12.000% bigger than my home country Sweden. The value is just too big to make sense of. If all Chinese people were to line up around the equator and hold hands, the line would stretch something like 28 times around the world. When growing up I used to love to read the CIA World Fact Book. It gave really cool facts in a language that I could understand even as a kid. Like Sweden is roughly the size of California. Denmark is the size of The State of New York. If CIA would try to put Chinas population in terms of a relative grouping in The United States, they would find it difficult. Chinas population is roughly equal to the combined population of Canada, The United States, All of The European Union, Norway, Switzerland and Russia. That is, in other words, 2 whole continents, plus all of northern Asia. There are a lot of Chinese people. If you think about it like that, China is not really a country; it is not even enough to call it a very large country. China is actually a very large continent in its own right. If there were a sea between China and the rest of Asia the Chinese Continent would be the worlds second most populous. There really are a lot of people in China.

The reason that this very large and very old (at least 4000 years, some books put it at 5000) country managed to escape, largely, under the radar of popular western awareness during the last century was of course that China did not want anything to do with the west and the west did not want anything to do with China. Wars tend to bring that out in civilizations. The American sponsored national army that was defeated by the communists in the Chinese civil war in the thirties and forties of the last century was not a good start for western – Chinese communist relations. The war in Korea where American and Chinese troops actually fought was not exactly optimal either. The fact that General MacArthur was really keen on using nuclear weapons on 30 cities on Mainland China was also not the best way to build permanent relations of chumminess between NATO and the new communist party republic. Perhaps the source of most angry feelings, however, was the fact that American effort to interfere with what is arguably actually a very Chinese issue (Taiwan) has never actually seized, even after the nationalist defeat. The nationalists were never in line to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Nor were they likely to ever secure a price for human rights activities. The main policy of the national movement seems to have been to reinstate feudalism by actively promoting corruption and using guns to kill lots of people that did not like the idea and had no guns. Thinking about it like that always makes me think that China was never really at fault when it comes to the frozen state of Sino Western relations. Since the Opium Wars the west has not been a very positive force in The Middle Kingdom. Luckily, that seems to have changed, and today we are much more welcome.

Rui Ming works for a Chinese language school in China that is a great option for those that want to learn Mandarin. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin.

Learning Mandarin – Real Life Learning

20 May

Learning Mandarin can be an adventure and it can be really boring. The best way to succeed is to make sure that you enjoy your studies.

Why do some people succeed at learning a language and some people don’t? As a person involved with running a mandarin language school it is my job to spend a lot of time to ponder this question. I have studied 4 foreign languages in my life. English (which you can see that I know), Spanish (which I still remember a few choice phrases from), German (which I have completely expunged from all memory banks) and Mandarin (which I am getting pretty good at). Why is that I failed miserably with German, did rather poorly with Spanish and succeeded with Mandarin and English? To me the answer is really clear. It fits in perfectly with data collected elsewhere. In fact I have never met anyone that has succeeded in learning a foreign language that did it in another way than I.

The fact about language studies that determine if you are going to succeed or not is with out a doubt the proportion of time you spend learning the language you spend with books as opposed to actually trying to speak it. Learning a language takes a lot a lot a lot of time. The complicated aspect of it – such as grammar and conjugation and what not, probably makes up no more than a percentage of the whole task. The main thing is to learn a lot of new word. Learning a language by sitting down with a book is so dreadfully boring that most people’s brain give out when they try. I suspect that brain implosion is actually the most common cause of death of foreigners in China. When I think about trying to learn Mandarin by only using a textbook my thoughts immediately go off into the first book of the Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy series. The Vorlons, or whatever they are called, are about to read some poetry to the unsuspecting main character and his partner in crime. The author then jumps into the narrative and explains what usually happens when people are subjugated to Vorlon poetry. The most benign outcome of a reading is when the persons intestines actually jump out of the body of the readee and strangles them to death.

I cannot think of anything more soul destroying, that is not banned by the Geneva convention, than sitting down for like 3 years and learning Mandarin by studying it only. If ways to bore people was somehow weaponised by evil scientists (like the worlds funniest joke is in Monty Python’s world) Mandarin language studies mainly pursued with books would be banned by several international treaties overnight.

The thing about it that so agitates me is that some schools try to hammer the language into the minds of students using this way when there are so many much better options. Especially in the light of the fact that most people that try this way, never actually learn the language. The best way that a school can help a student learn a language is by helping them to a point where they can speak Mandarin outside of class as soon as possible. The success of the worlds largest language school franchise English First, now known as Education First, EF, is just can’t be attributed to their learning material. From what I remember of it from my childhood as an EF student it was actually really boring. What they do do well is putting people in host families when they go abroad. Speaking to native speakers for an hour is probably worth a days worth of studies once you get past the basics.

The people that I know in China who speaks the best Mandarin has spent very little time in class rooms, they have learned Mandarin by pursuing the language outside of school. The way that schools helped them was combining personal content (the stuff they needed professionally and in hobbies) with the basic glue they needed to put the sentences together. The rest these students sorted out themselves.

Rui Ming works for a Chinese language school in China that is a great option for those that want to learn Mandarin. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin.

Learning Mandarin and Determination

20 May

To learn Mandarin takes time. This is a short discussion on what it takes to complete the mission.

To learn Mandarin takes a fair amount of determination. It is not so much the level of difficulty that makes people falter as the mountain of easy stuff. The thing is that the mountain exists for all languages: a language is basically comprised of 99% words and 1% syntax. What makes the Chinese mountain seem so difficult is the fact that its shape is so different. It is however crucial to make a distinction between difficulty and newness. Once you get past that initial confusion you see that learning Mandarin is not that much harder than learning another language.

At that point learning Mandarin will seem like an even better idea; the alien shape of the mountain as viewed from afar will continue to look intimidating to your peers, but armed with the basic knowledge of the structure of the language you can pursue proficiency alone. The thing about languages and mountains is that the benefits attributed to conquering them are inversely proportioned to how many people that set out to do so. If something seems harder than it is, the cost-benefit analysis of actually doing it works in your favor. Learning Mandarin is a 100% sure way of standing out in any future job interview, learning a different foreign language just simply does not have nearly the same status attributed to it – this comes in part because so few people do it and part because it makes you seem like a pretty clever person that can learn other complicated things.

What makes all languages hard though, not only Mandarin, is that a mountain is still a mountain and even people that realize that it is not as daunting as it first seems fail at learning Mandarin. That is not special for Mandarin; it is true for all languages. The people that manage to learn a language do so because they have a purpose in mind when they start of on their trip to the summit, or they find one on the way. Having a clear objective is very important. Meandering about on a foothill odyssey will not take you all the way to the top.

With this notion in mind it is really hard to understand that even a language like Mandarin is mostly taught with textbooks. Textbooks are great to teach people in en economical way – it is terrible to teach them in an efficient way. What makes me say even a language like Mandarin is the fact that economics enter into the equation on a very different scale than for example French. China owes its growth miracle to the fact that there are many people in China that are keen on working for smaller wages than elsewhere. From a economic standpoint that should mean that there are much greater opportunity to teach in a more efficient way – in other words relying on people instructing other people as opposed to textbooks teaching people.

The reason that textbooks are apt at making language studies cheap is that you can create one that can teach millions of people the same stuff and then just stick it into a copy machine and you are done. The reason that this way of teaching a language will never be efficient is that the content of such a book needs to fit millions, or at least thousands. This is not done elsewhere in society. We normally recognize that people come in different sizes and flavors. When someone designs a shoe they make it in different sizes. When we make cars they come in different colors and specs to fit individual preferences. Why then do we try to teach something so inherently personal as a mode of communication with the one shoe fits all principle in mind?

The number one way to ensure that a student has the determination to finish the job is to give them the good stuff; the soul food they need in order to realize their objectives. Personal content (personal textbooks) is one way of finding a balance between economics and efficiency as it can be taught in small classes but retain the benefits of private ones.

Rui Ming works for a Chinese language school in China that is a great option for those that want to learn Mandarin. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin.

Learning Mandarin Versus Learning French or German

20 May

Learning Mandarin is more beneficial today than ever before. Here is one reason why.

For westerners, learning Mandarin is different from learning other languages in a number of ways. One positive aspect we I will talk about today is the fact that learning Mandarin would make you comparatively unique than learning a different language. Although there are today more and more Chinese people that speak the western modern lingua franca English there are few westerners that can speak to Chinese people on their own terms. That may appear to be rather strange advantage; if communication is already possible, then surely the bridge is all ready there? Why build two bridges across the same river? The reasons that the second bridge is useful are actually plenty.

One reason that does not take into account the cultural effects that are more complicated to effectively communicate in this little article, is the fact that a western education is still vastly more regarded, and justifiably so, in comparison with a Chinese education. Another in the same vein of non-culturally dependent arguments is the fact that although China’s elite speaks decent English, the vast majority of Chinese people do not speak very good English, certainly not sufficiently to marginalize the benefits experiences by a bilingual westerner living in China. In this same category of ideas we find an even more salient reason: just as there are differences between levels of proficiency in China, there are differences in how Chinese is going to be used by westerners today and in the future.

This trend, which will increase in scope and depth during the coming decade, is the process of shifting China from an export led economy to a balanced economy. Balance here basically means that Chinese people will need to stop saving so much and consumer more. That means that in part western people will need to stop buying so much from China and start selling more. For a western corporation to sell in China, the benefits of bilingual staff is much greater than for a corporation that mainly / just wants to buy. The onus for the communication of ideas is shifted onto the shoulders of the salesman. A westerner can of course still be able to act within a business setting using only English, as we noted, the elite speaks very good English, but the fact remains that the westerner that is able to speak also Mandarin is at an enormous competitive advantage in comparison to his monolingual counterparts.

That takes care of your Chinese opponents in the world of bridge building: you are clearly able to harness immense benefits from the China’s bright future if you speak Mandarin even if there are many Chinese people also keen on learning you mother tongue. The other bridge builders that you are in direct competition with in terms of uniqueness on the labor market is the people on the same side of the river as you: the people that already speak English.

Europe is the continent that has had most linguistic influence elsewhere, so it makes sense for us to start there. If you are able to fight in the most competitive of arenas, you are also likely to be able to fight in less competitive ones. Almost 50 percent of Europe is fully proficient in English. That means that there are around 240 million Europeans that speak the language that I am writing in now. The second largest group is French and German speakers, each with a solid 20 percent of the population; 88 million in terms of absolute numbers. Learning one of these 2 languages would not make you very unique. The same applies to Spanish 10 percent – 44 million people. The remaining languages are smaller, but so are the benefits of learning them for another reason – the countries are simply not even close to having a small proportion of the weight that China does today and will have in the future. In contrast, there are actually no readily available statistics on how many Europeans speak Mandarin, but as a proportion it is smaller than a fraction of a percent.

There are many reasons that learning Mandarin is more interesting today than ever before. The ability to distinguish oneself on the labor market is just one of the foremost.

Rui Ming works for a Chinese language school in China that is a great option for those that want to learn Mandarin. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin.

Mandarin Language Students

20 May

This here is brief account of what it means to be a mandarin language student in China.

Learning Mandarin, as I have argued in quite a few articles on this page, is much less about studying the language than it is about actually speaking Chinese. As Mandarin is pretty much confined to China in way that English, for example, is not confined to countries where it is the mother tongue, there is only one place to really learn the language. For people that are keen to be apart of what is widely consider as the greatest paradigm shift of our time, the rise of China as en economic and political super-power, there is therefore a magnetic pull towards The Middle Kingdom on two accounts. The first reason is of course that China is China and that China is the word. The second is that China is the only place you can learn to communicate with Chinese people on their own terms.

In the last 20 years the amount of students dedicated to Mandarin has gone from somewhere much closer to 0, to a full 100 million today. That is impressive growth. A trend that is only rivaled, as far as I know, by the pace of China’s economic growth (which roughly doubles the size of the economy every 7 years). Which can probably be attributed as being the main cause of the former. This has created a situation where the best and the brightest minds of the current student generation are more and more attracted to not only the Mandarin language, but also China as place to learn it, and that makes the top language schools in China a very exiting place to work.

The people that I consider to be the best and the brightest is not the same as the group of recent graduates selected for the final interview for Goldman and Sachs (thought I am sure that those people are very nice and clever to). The defining characteristic of an interesting person to have a conversation with is for me someone who is primarily motivated by the urge to explore. There are very few uncharted jungles left on earth, so until we develop warp speed exploration is about people and less so about defoliating ancient pyramids. The explorer of the modern age is therefore a humanist. Someone interested in other people. In how other people interact. In how to find out ways for making life better for earthlings by finding new ways we can cooperate. This may sound to you like grade-A cheese but there really is something special about western people in China.

The proportion of people with a really cool idea that they are super keen to talk about is simply astounding. Everywhere I go I seem to bump into a true Indiana Jones of the 21st century. I live with a pretty good cross section of the people that I meet. There is one student that is still learning Mandarin. My girlfriend, whom I also live with, is a fairly successful videographer with a taste for trying to combine western ideas with Chinese ideas regarding film. The fourth housemate is the CEO of his very own start up company that helps Chinese scientist communicate their ideas in a language that fits with western rhetoric and vice versa. The other day I met a 17-year-old intern who spoke a fair bit of Mandarin that was setting of into the heartlands of Chinese manufacturing to find his Swedish employer a cheaper supplier of chicken wire. My best friend’s ex girlfriend is also the sole owner and CEO of her very own start up company with 5 employees. She sells Chinese art abroad. She is 28 years old. To me, this is amazing.

Of course moving to China is not a recipe for success but it seems to me that China really has some very fertile ground where idea seeds tend to grow at alarming rates. Even if you are not successful in creating your own business, which to be fair, is pretty tough, you are likely to get some incredible ideas of your own by just talking to people. To me, the best reason to learn Mandarin in China is my peers.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin Language School in China that is a great option for those that want to learn mandarin, the lingua franca of the growing economic powerhouse. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin in China.

Studying Mandarin Versus Learning Mandarin

20 May

Studying Mandarin is about books, Learning Mandarin is about speaking. Which method wins in the end?

How difficult is it to learn Mandarin? That was the question that I asked myself a few years ago. As it turns out, rather difficult. But it was also difficult for me to learn to speak English and I found it difficult to learn Spanish as well.

As you can see for yourself in the end I managed with English. I did however not with Spanish and today I only remember the most common phrases – what makes Mandarin and English different, for me, is that I had a much more defined purpose with both and I think this is the crucial ingredient that turns language learning from merely studying to actually speaking it.

I learned to speak English in America when I moved there as a young teenager, the beginning was rather awkward as I was not really able to partake in most social situations. People found it pretty hilarious and that was the motivation I needed to at least keep trying. That and a pretty girl called Alissa with whom I was eager (galore) to speak to. My English is even today incomplete in a strange way, I don’t have the faintest clue of the underlying grammar for example, but I speak English at a close to native level. I went to an English university (York) and after 3 years of hard-core academics I think my English is probably better than my native tongue Swedish. This tells me one thing: learning a language is not about studying it. I made more progress in my first month in America than I did during my three years of studying German in Sweden (today I can recall exactly no useful German).

Learning a language is about speaking the language. For this reason one could erroneously conclude that language schools are a pretty stupid invention. One would be wrong because although it is using the language that eventually brings about fluency, one is much better off with structured tuition combined with a natural setting to practice that which one learns in the classroom environment.

One would be more correct in thinking that language textbooks, however, are a pretty silly attempt at finding an optimal method of learning Mandarin. That is because textbooks are never meant to be an optimal way of teaching a language in the first place – they are however an economical way of doing it. From an accounting point of view it is genius to identify that which most people need the most and make a book about it. One shoe fits all. One team sits down; churns out a book and then you are pretty much done with it. You can teach millions of people Mandarin by simply handing them a book and stuffing them all into a very large classroom. The trouble with the method is that even though it is really cheap, it is also, as we have already stated not optimal. In fact, it is so far from optimal that most people that try to learn Mandarin in this way fails.

Currently there are about 100 million people trying to learn Mandarin. Out of these 100 million people almost all of them are using the above method, and the vast majority of these students will never reach their goal. As I initially noted, learning Mandarin turned out to be hard. The tipping point for me came when I found a school that did not teach Mandarin in the conventional way. Instead the school created tailor-made study plans that allowed me to focus on the aspects of the Mandarin language that mattered most to me. This proved to be the building blocks that helped me take the learning process out of the realm of pure academics and learn it by speaking on the streets of Beijing, in my new job in China and during my spare time in various hobbies. For me this was the turning point but I am sure that there are many other ways of doing the same thing. I do however reckon that the methods might just work for everyone. Probably because it is the opposite of one-shoe-fits-all… instead of being a somewhat decent fit it is a perfect fit. There is however a drawback, of course – there is always a drawback, that this: the method is roughly twice as expensive.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin Language School in China that is a great option for those that want to learn mandarin, the lingua franca of the growing economic powerhouse. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin in China.