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Learning mandarin chinese : how and why ?

Learning languages | Choosing your language | Francois Micheloud



Probably one of the most fascinating languages in the world.

Click for the pop-up window "10 reasons to learn Chinese"

Introduction - ©www.micheloud.com


Obviously, speaking chinese is only useful when dealing with chinese people, but there are about a billion of them and the country is opening up. You can argue that this is the language of the future, with huge untapped markets for so many things that the need for Western people speaking chinese can only go up.
The spoken language is usually not considered as beautiful by Western people, although you can't deny the attraction of the writing system which has led more than one to learn the language.
Chic factor
Learning chinese is considered so difficult and so few people actually do it that it seems that if you say that you speak it the only attitude you're likely to meet is disbelief. Too bad because on the face of it, this is probably the most difficult language you can learn (even the great Ziad Fazah says so), so it should also be the most chic.
About 800 mio speak it as their mother tongue, plus 200 mio as a second language. Keep in mind that all the chinese languages in China are written more or less the same and that if you can read one, you can read all.
China, but you should be able to read newspapers from Hong Kong and Taiwan (see below)
Regional variations
This is where it becomes tricky, because mandarin chinese is only spoken in mainland China, not in Taiwan nor in Honk Hong. That means that outside China, you are likely to meet people who speak another dialect, like cantonese.
Travelling with chinese is limited to China, but what a country it is ! Sea, desert, mountains, forests, huge cities, just name it and you'll find a passionating chinese version.
Multi millenarian culture, with litterature a thousand years old, castles, palaces, poetry, calligraphy, excellent cuisine.


Difficulty - ©www.micheloud.com
The lesser of the two main difficulties of chinese : you have some strange consonants that you must get right, but when you succeed, you have to cope with the four tones of mandarin. The same syllabe can be pronounced in 4 different manners (rising, flat, etc...), with the corresponding 4 sets of meanings. A friend of mine which is learning mandarin told me that this was not so bad, and that the simplicity of the syntax largely compensated it. 
If there is one easy thing about chinese, it's the syntax. No flexion (words never change, verbs have one unique form) and a simple word order makes you feel as if you were speaking petit nŤgre.
Words never change, and thus complex words are made of apposed shorter ones (roots). 
Learning chinese, you understand better why linguist speak of a language as the spoken part only : there's no relationship whatsoever between what you hear (the word) and what you write (the character). So the chinese have a way a writing how a character is to be pronounced, this is pin-yin, a phonetical alphabet based on our own alphabet.

The problem is even worse because of the Revolution : where Mao simplified most characters, people in Taiwan kept the complex character. So you can have two ways of writing a character, and 5 ways of reading it (one for each main dialect).  

Overall difficulty
I rate this language as –––––, that is, very difficult to learn, because of the tonal system, and complex ideographic writing. In my opinion this is the most difficult language you can learn, and I sincerely compliment those who manage to do it .
Time needed
Three to four years seems safe if you want to learn to read, but you can speak in one year.


Learning material - ©www.micheloud.com
Books and tapes
There's no excellent package for chinese, although we found a very good one.

Pimsleur Speak and Read Essential Chinese, has only one volume,   30 lessons, 15 hours, and can only be a good if not cheap  introduction to the oral language. You can buy it from Simon and Schuster from Amazon :

The Foreign Service Institute has a huge modular package it uses to teach chinese to US military intelligence officers. There are 3 basic modules and then 10 specific modules and three optional ones. Each one normally comes with (good) tapes and a "book" (rather a bunch of typewritten sheets clipped together). This is the best package we have found for the self learner, with over 150 one-hour tapes. The total cost is stratospheric because they are made on the demand by the NTIS. The total package can set you back by $1700. If you want to go ahead, you can go to the NTIS website http://www.ntis.gov and search for "Standard Chinese : a Modular Approach".

Audioforum sells a good stack of flash cards with about 700 basic characters in both simplified and traditional script for about 30$.

If you are looking for a dictionary, look well. You have to decide wether you want simplified or traditional characters, and then try to find one with the pin yin for every variation, not just the basic character.

(no, I neither work for Pimsleur nor for the FSI)

I can offer no advice on this at this time.
If you're serious about chinese, you'll soon need a software to type it correctly. NJStar sells an excellent one, where you can type the pin-yin and it shows you all the possible characters for the sound you typed.


Learning languages | Choosing your language | Francois Micheloud