Studying Mandarin at a Chinese University

20 May

Why and why not study Mandarin in a university, that’s the question.

The combined approach tends to be the best approach. To only focus on one aspect of a problem or solution often seems to either be inefficient or not get the whole job done. The same applies to Mandarin language studies. Lets discuss why exactly it is that a university education in the mandarin language almost invariably is much less useful than one you obtained elsewhere. It is a pretty strange notion that universities are unable to teach mandarin in an optimal fashion – they teach almost everything else better than anyone else. Why not Mandarin? The problem is not one of lack of expertise, lack of resources or lack of interest. Chinese universities attract many excellent teachers, they are well funded and they access benefits of scale due to high enrollment figures. The problems are rather in the topic being taught. Mandarin is not difficult to explain, it is just very different from what most people are used to. A university is fantastic at conveying and creating dogma. The scientific method is per definition undisputable and most topics that deal with science are very much subject to logic. A logic-centered topic is easy to hammer into someone’s head in a large lecture hall. The impartation of this type of topic is well suited for a university. Something that is not difficult, but very different is not.

Learning Mandarin is not half as much about learning words as it is about getting used to a new way of thinking about language. There are key elements in Mandarin few people that grew up in the western world ever have seen. One of these is the way that Mandarin is pronounced. I’d like to take a look at this topic in more detail because pronunciation is one of the biggest weaknesses in university students’ abilities. So, in English, there are merely syllables and the story of English pronunciation ends about there. If you can utter all the syllables you can pronounce English. The Chinese Mandarin story is much much longer. Firstly, there are pitch modulations inherent in the language. They call them tones, but they are not really tones, as they vary in pitch. Secondly even when including pitch modulation, there are now words in Chinese that are unique in their pronunciation. Meaning that each word, as an English speaking person would see it, often has hundreds of meanings.

Now that was really easy and quick for me to describe. It took less than 1 minute for you to read a full account of the logic of tones. You are however months from being able to handle this aspect of the Mandarin language on an intuitive language. You need to re train your brain to not assign meanings by sound but by context. This peculiarity negates many of a university’s usual strengths. Most university operates on the following basis: create a meritocracy for education and everyone will benefit. In terms of operation parameters it translates into filling a room of pretty bright people listening to an even smarter person. Knowledge is imparted, everyone is tested, an meritocracy is created. But when it is not about transferring or copying knowledge from a smarter brain to a slightly less smart brain the system is not nearly as efficient. As mandarin is mostly about rewriting the basic way in which how we as individuals comprehend a language individual attention is necessary. The university one set of words suits all just doesn’t produce optimal outcomes.

For starters, people graduate with a lot of words but with atrocious pronunciation. Secondly, people graduate with batch of words that suit everyone so so and no one perfectly. A language is a tool that is used by individuals, it can therefore never be taught in an optimal way without addressing the personal objectives of students. For this, on a fundamental level, a university is ill suited. This is why most people succeed better elsewhere.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin academy that is a great option for those that want to learn Chinese. If you are interested in more information about learning Chinese in China, please consult the website of Beijing Gateway Academy.

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