Learning to communicate in Mandarin is more popular today than it has ever been before. Today, globally, roughly 1 million people are trying to learn the lingua franca of contemporary China. The figure keeps rising every year and it is not difficult to make an educated guess as to why people all of a sudden have become so interested. The last twenty years has been incredible for China. Annual growth rates at around 10% has seen the Chinese economy grow threefold, market liberalization has allowed ordinary people to control their property and increased global attention on China has put the huge country in the east right in the living room of most western households. All this and hundreds of other changes in the middle kingdom have made Chinas’ future seem very bright indeed and people have come to see what they can do about sharing some of the benefits. So what about learning this language? The one language that holds the key to perhaps the greatest paradigm shift of our time. Practice makes perfect in most aspects of human endeavor and the same applies to mandarin language studies. Practice in terms of language studies really means just one thing: speaking Mandarin, and in terms of possible places where this can be done – they are pretty much limited to China. So the first step to learn Mandarin is getting on an eastbound plane. The second step is to find a place to learn the language in a structured way. Because, although learning Mandarin is best done by speaking, you will need to start somewhere. That somewhere is most likely a place with the following characteristic: a very small class s size.
Class size – matters more than anything else when it comes to learning to speak a language quickly. The reason for this is especially important for Mandarin language studies: pronunciation is key to get to grips with enough basics to start using the language, and for mandarin, this is no easy task. In fact, it is much much harder than it is for a Germanic or Latin language speaker to learn a second language from one of these two groups. The reason for this being the case is that Mandarin is not only, of course, completely different in its syllable mark up compared to these language, as they have no common ancestry, there is also the fact that there is an additional dimension to Mandarin pronunciation that you will never have encountered before. The concept is called tones, but these tones are not like the tones you can get out of a musical instrument such as A-minor or G-flat, they are pitch modulation. So a syllable pronounced with a high and extended pitch means something different from a syllable pronounced with a sharp falling pitch. For example: the syllable that means to buy: mai, can also mean to sell if modulated differently. Mai, with an initially slightly falling pitch and then a rising pitch means to buy. Mai, with a sharp falling pitch, means to sell.
This may seem like a really difficult task to get used to, and it is. However, it does not really make learning Mandarin any harder or easier. In the long run it takes at least a year or two to learn a new language. You will, if properly instructed, clear this first hurdle within weeks. That does however need to be qualified in the sense that class size will play a crucial role in making it true. If you are in a class room of thirty students, for example, you are going to get roughly 0 time with the teacher’s undivided attention and so you are never really going to be able to get past the first obstacle.
But, in the end one thing matters above all: that you enjoy your time learning the language. As I said, it does take time, and life is very short. Don’t waste it learning Mandarin in a way does not suit your taste, you will not be happy and you will not do as well as you have if you were in a place that catered to your personality.
About the Author
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 contemporary China. See the program overview page for more information about studying Mandarin in China.