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.

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