Learning Mandarin – Difficulties and Opportunities

20 May

There are many difficulties that dissuade people from trying to learn Mandarin, but these problems are not really as bad as they seem at first, they are just differences compared to the language western people already speak. Get passed them and the road to proficiency will open up

Mandarin language studies are problematic. Mostly because Mandarin is very different from other languages that people in the west have tried to get to grips with before trying to learn Chinese, not because learning Mandarin is much harder. Mandarin is strange in many ways. The writing system is obviously completely different. There is no alphabet as the one that Germanic and Latin derivates have. Instead a picture defines every word; or rather a series of what is called strokes. For example, three stokes that together make a square means mouth, one combination of strokes that kind of depicts a woman holding a kid means mother and so on. But the differences don’t end there. The grammar is largely made up of what is called particles. For example; adding a syllable pronounced ma after a sentence turns it into a question, adding guo after a sentence means that that it happens in the past. Combining these basic examples; you go shanghai guo ma? Communicates the question: have you gone to Shanghai? The differences are however much more explicit that this. Even the sounds of spoken Chinese are completely different from western counterparts.

Chinese spoken words are not only defined by syllables as western words are. The word for mother in English is just 6 different sounds noted by each character; M, O, T, H, E and R. In Chinese there is two syllables, not four characters, ma and ma. The twist is that “mama” can be pronounced in twenty-five different ways. Each of the two syllables, ma and ma, can be pronounced with 5 different tones, creating a total matrix of 5 times 5 possibilities, and only one means mother. The tones are called tones but they are not tones such as A minor or G, they are pitch modulation. The first tone is a slightly steady high pitch. The second is a rising pitch. The third tone goes down and then up. The fourth is a sharp decline in pitch from high to low. The fifth is called the neutral tone and does not actually have a modulation form.

All that sounds bloody difficult, and it is, at least at first. So how do you best go about coming to grips with it? Because of course it is possible. In fact I know one lovely French girl called Julie, her Chinese is better than her English. I also know a very talented German videographer that has lived in China for only three years; he often searches for the English word to describe something and ends up saying it Chinese. Basically, I would argue, that Chinese is not so much bloody difficult as it is bloody different.

Once you get past the hurdle of the fundamental concepts that are so perplexing there is a very clear and sensible structure to the language. When people start learning Chinese they cannot see this structure for all the structure, like that tired old simile of someone standing in the woods but can’t see it cause the trees are in the way. The trees that make up Chinese are not like the trees you find in Europe or North America but they are most definitely present and once you begin to get to grips with their from, the rest will flow much much much easier. The way that I learned Mandarin, and the way the Julie and Kris, the German videographer, learn Mandarin has one clear thing in common. We learned it with a very precise purpose in mind.

For Julie it was to work in the Chinese art sector, for Kris it was to do his video stuff in Beijing, for me it was to work with a small start up company. Each of us had a focus with our studies and when we learned the words that pertained to our little corner of the language the structure of Mandarin was really easy to see and from there on, learning Mandarin was much more interesting and efficient than it would have been if we just sat down with a book.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin language school that is a great option for those that want to learn Mandarin. The academy has intensive program tailored to individual needs, see the program description at: learn Mandarin in China.

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