Learning to Speak Mandarin – The Best Way Forward?

20 May

What is the best way to learn Mandarin?

The best way to learn Mandarin, or any other language, or pretty much anything else, for that matter, is to enjoy learning it. Enjoyment usually comes from a combination of three factors; relevance, progress and perceived future benefits. A person will enjoy studying Mandarin if they are interested in the language (because the aspects of Mandarin they are learning are relevant), or if they can see that they are progressing quickly (in a direction they want to go), or if they can feel that the effort they are putting in now, is really going to pay off in the future. The best way to learn Mandarin will therefore be a way that directly targets the student’s interests (making the learning process relevant), imparts the language in an efficient manner (so that the student feel she or he is progressing quickly) and is focused on the aspect of the Mandarin language that will bring most benefits to individuals.

Now, that is a pretty tall order. For starters, it cannot be like 99% of other curricula out there. When people sit down and form a study plan it is usually mean to fit thousands. People make the choice of topics for these general curricula so as to make sure that the vast majority of persons will benefit from them. This does, however, mean that the curriculum will never be an exact match for anyone. The nature of mandarin language studies is different from math, physics or economics because it is not tool to understand the world, it is a tool used to communicate. We don’t learn to speak a language to gain insight into an aspect of the natural world, we do it be able to describe the natural world to more people. The natural worlds stays the same, but the part of it that interests us as people vary from person to person. This factor represents a fundamental problem and opportunity for people sitting down to figure out how to best teach Mandarin.

The problem is that we cannot teach Mandarin in an optimal way to a thousand people at a time. Everyone is different and the shoe will never fit everyone however we decide to shape it. The opportunity is that we instead of trying to create one shoe for everyone, create a system for people to make their own shoes, we will be much closer to the our target: creating the best possible way to learn mandarin. The answer is aptly called personal content and it is only possible to create this type of material with very very very high teacher to student ratios. By containing only the special words, which makes most sense to individuals, enjoyment is pretty much served on a platter. The first thing we said we needed was relevance. Naturally personal content will be relevant. The second aspect we discussed was efficiency/rapid progress. This is also pretty much present by definition, for these two reasons;

The first reason is that your brain loves and craves relevant information. A person that has no clue about math or numbers, but likes their cities football team, will have no trouble remember every mathematical detail about their idols. The second reason is that when you get spoon-fed the stuff that you are already able to do, in say English, you will soon be able to do them in Chinese Mandarin to. Not as well, at least at first, but better and better over time. With practice does come perfection and this is of course the second reason that your studies will be much more efficient: you are able to practice in a natural and relevant setting.

The third detail we discussed was targeted goals; people that are learning something that seems to be able to bring them lots of drugs, sex and rock and roll seem to do much better than people who are learning something that matters zilch for their future. When people can choose what to study, this facet of our equation is also taken care of, almost by pure definition. To answer the question posted in the title; what is the best way to learn Mandarin? I think it is fair to say that by making a course about each person, instead of about a group of fictional and generic students, we are pretty close to an answer.

Rui Ming works for a Chinese Language School that is a great option for those that want to start learning to Speak Mandarin.


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