Learning Mandarin Is Learning How to Use a Tool

20 May

Chinese, or Standard Mandarin, is not useful in its own right. Only by extension can we reap utility from proficiency. The process, which we use to learn mandarin, should reflect this.

A language is a tool that we mean to be use. But before we can start practicing speaking, which is ultimately not only the aim of ones Mandarin studies, but also the best way to learn to speak Chinese, we need to at least be familiar with the basics. Therefore, if we are to discuss the optimal way to learn standard mandarin, or pu tong hua, as it is known as in China, we need to discuss what the optimal way to learn anything is. There are few things that are as important for learning as examples. Einstein once wrote that “examples are not only the best way to teach, it is the only way”. In terms of how the human brain comes to understand new things, examples are not simply a way to put something into context; it is a way for the brain to link new facts to old facts. To cement the new raw input of data into the foundations of previously assimilated facts about the world. A book that simply lists properties of the world is very difficult to enjoy, to understand and to remember. If the book instead notes these properties in terms of their links to the rest of the world, this changes.

That is why no one attempts to learn Mandarin by simply reading a dictionary. The overall property that we are really discussing is relevance. The brain craves it. Hence, we use textbooks. Textbooks, in the context of mandarin studies, usually has dialogues in them which link new words that the student is required to learn to the context in which those words will be used.

The problem with textbooks, however, is that they are generally applicable, at the best of times. When I say problem, it may not really fit the bill for what is usually considered the norm for what an educational experience need to encompass. It is usually fine that a book is a way to impart knowledge to a great mass of people. However, that is hardly something that can be considered optimal. Relevance is personal and subjective and to make something that is meant to fit thousands will never be an exact fit to any of those students.

Einstein wrote that examples are the only way to teach something. By extension, relevance is the only way to teach something. Should we not then create a method for teaching Mandarin that is perfectly harnesses the power of relevance? The way to do this seems to me, to be to make the content come in two flavors.

Some content is truly relevant to everyone. That content should be imparted to everyone in bulk because it is most efficient to do this in that way. For this purpose, a textbook is an optimal vehicle.

But a great deal of content is only relevant to individuals. For example, an economist like myself, need the jargon and terminology of economics to do my work. I should be taught the jargon and terminology of economics, but unless you also are an economist, you should not have to endure the terrible boredom of macro and micro economic models. The business cycle should not be put in a textbook for general mandarin studies but for me it is the perfect vehicle to practice mandarin. I am able to practice mandarin in natural conversation only if I have access to the terminology in need. Which aside from relevance is the second most important property that we are looking for when it comes language studies.

A language, including Standard Mandarin, is inherently a tool, and a tool is inherently something you need to use for it to be useful. A mere knowledge of Mandarin is not helpful in the same way that knowledge of most other topics are. It is a method of communication.

So in summary, relevance and practice, is without a doubt, the best way forward.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin language Academy in Beijing that is a great option for those that want to learn mandarin in China. If you are interested in more information about the Academy’s program, please the course page: learn mandarin in China.

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