Studying Mandarin Versus Learning Mandarin

20 May

Studying Mandarin is about books, Learning Mandarin is about speaking. Which method wins in the end?

How difficult is it to learn Mandarin? That was the question that I asked myself a few years ago. As it turns out, rather difficult. But it was also difficult for me to learn to speak English and I found it difficult to learn Spanish as well.

As you can see for yourself in the end I managed with English. I did however not with Spanish and today I only remember the most common phrases – what makes Mandarin and English different, for me, is that I had a much more defined purpose with both and I think this is the crucial ingredient that turns language learning from merely studying to actually speaking it.

I learned to speak English in America when I moved there as a young teenager, the beginning was rather awkward as I was not really able to partake in most social situations. People found it pretty hilarious and that was the motivation I needed to at least keep trying. That and a pretty girl called Alissa with whom I was eager (galore) to speak to. My English is even today incomplete in a strange way, I don’t have the faintest clue of the underlying grammar for example, but I speak English at a close to native level. I went to an English university (York) and after 3 years of hard-core academics I think my English is probably better than my native tongue Swedish. This tells me one thing: learning a language is not about studying it. I made more progress in my first month in America than I did during my three years of studying German in Sweden (today I can recall exactly no useful German).

Learning a language is about speaking the language. For this reason one could erroneously conclude that language schools are a pretty stupid invention. One would be wrong because although it is using the language that eventually brings about fluency, one is much better off with structured tuition combined with a natural setting to practice that which one learns in the classroom environment.

One would be more correct in thinking that language textbooks, however, are a pretty silly attempt at finding an optimal method of learning Mandarin. That is because textbooks are never meant to be an optimal way of teaching a language in the first place – they are however an economical way of doing it. From an accounting point of view it is genius to identify that which most people need the most and make a book about it. One shoe fits all. One team sits down; churns out a book and then you are pretty much done with it. You can teach millions of people Mandarin by simply handing them a book and stuffing them all into a very large classroom. The trouble with the method is that even though it is really cheap, it is also, as we have already stated not optimal. In fact, it is so far from optimal that most people that try to learn Mandarin in this way fails.

Currently there are about 100 million people trying to learn Mandarin. Out of these 100 million people almost all of them are using the above method, and the vast majority of these students will never reach their goal. As I initially noted, learning Mandarin turned out to be hard. The tipping point for me came when I found a school that did not teach Mandarin in the conventional way. Instead the school created tailor-made study plans that allowed me to focus on the aspects of the Mandarin language that mattered most to me. This proved to be the building blocks that helped me take the learning process out of the realm of pure academics and learn it by speaking on the streets of Beijing, in my new job in China and during my spare time in various hobbies. For me this was the turning point but I am sure that there are many other ways of doing the same thing. I do however reckon that the methods might just work for everyone. Probably because it is the opposite of one-shoe-fits-all… instead of being a somewhat decent fit it is a perfect fit. There is however a drawback, of course – there is always a drawback, that this: the method is roughly twice as expensive.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin Language School in China that is a great option for those that want to learn mandarin, the lingua franca of the growing economic powerhouse. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin in China.


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