Studying Mandarin and Class Sizes

20 May

Learning Mandarin in China is much easier than learning is elsewhere. The number one factor underpinning any effort to capitalize on being in the country is the amount of students that a teacher needs to attend to in class.

To answer the question “What is the best way to learn a language like Mandarin?” we should start by defining what makes Mandarin special and what we mean by learning it. Mandarin is different from Germanic and Latin languages in a few ways; to get to grips with Mandarin pronunciation is initially difficult because there are concept involved that you have never even heard about, the writing system is also entirely different and the syntax has many foreign elements that also take time to get used to. When I discuss these difficulties I will do so in the context of someone that is interested in mastering the language, not just learning the very basics. The reason that I reckon that this distinction is important is two fold. The first reason is that a major commitment most often has an underlying reasoning behind it, most often a desire to work with China in some way, this, as you will see, directly affects the way a persons studies. The second reason is that studying mandarin in the short with only basic results is different from a more serious commitment that involves learning more about the underlying structure of the language; the building blocks which is used to form more complicated sentences and meanings.

Lets start with picking an example of an underlying reason for learning Mandarin: let’s say that someone wants to learn Mandarin to work with graphic design in China. The best way to achieve this is unequivocally to use the language in a setting that pertains to graphic design, such as an internship or in a position where Mandarin is useful but not necessary. That will allow you to practice the language in a natural way and directly approach the topic that is most important. By organically building up your base knowledge your foundation for further studies both within this topic and other topics as well will be extremely solid.

But a place to practice the language is only one aspect of the full story here. In order to get to a point where using the language, even in a basic way, you need to overcome the three obstacles that I outlined at the beginning of the article; pronunciation, familiarity with the writing system and a command of basic grammar. If you were just learning the very basics, in order for example to be able to be polite while traveling, you could just memorize the 50 to 100 words that you might need. As a serious student you are however, of course, much better of by actually achieving a better understanding of why the words are formed like they are, that way it will be much easier to get to grips with a larger and deeper section of words and meanings.

Pronunciation requires correction. You cannot efficiently learn to pronounce words from a book or even really an audiotape. You are always better off having someone that speaks the language correcting you until you get it right. That means face to face time with a teacher. The best way to get over this hurdle is by enrolling in a school with small class size (less that 10 is good, but the smaller the better!).
The writing system is also best tackled in a small group because different people find different parts of it hard, this means individual questions, which also means that there are benefits to a lot of face to face time with a teacher. Grammar is easier than both pronunciation and writing in Mandarin so the class size matters less for this aspect, but of course a small class size is conducive to faster results in this respect also.

I wrote so much about class size because the way to really capitalize on a internship or a similar position is to be taught the exact jargon and terminology you need for this role. This is never possible to teach in a large class size.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin Language School in China that is a great option for those that want to study mandarin. See the program overview page for more information about studying Mandarin in China.

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