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The ‘Long March’ to learning Chinese: Top 5 tips – part 1

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As a non-Asian student in the 1980s who graduated with a B.A. in
Chinese language and history, and an M.A. in East Asian Studies focused
on classical Chinese literature, I became somewhat of a "curiosity" for
family and friends. Back then, China was only just starting to emerge
from its isolation in the international community, and my own interest
in studying Chinese raised many eyebrows — as if I were pursuing a
subject which was way out on the fringe, and had little practical career
applications.

When I subsequently began my career in business
after completing an M.B.A in the early 1990s, China was already starting
to flex its commercial and political muscles on the international
stage. However, even then, many of my acquaintances and colleagues still
viewed my fluency in Chinese as not much more than an unusual topic for
social conversation, and an ability that would enable me to order the
best, most authentic food in Chinese restaurants.

That was then, this is now.

In
2013, China's central and ever-growing role in international political
and business affairs is both universally recognized, and constantly
making headlines across the world. As a result, recent years have
witnessed what can only be described as the full throes of
Chinese-language "fever" in the United States. Across our cities,
Chinese language programs are rapidly emerging to address the needs of
busy business professionals who are looking to fast-track a working
competency in Chinese to more effectively build global business
relationships. At the same time, Chinese language has become one of the
fastest growing subjects in the educational sphere, with
primary/secondary schools and colleges across the country rushing to add
Chinese to their foreign language teaching rosters.
From 1998 to 2009,
U.S. college student enrollment in Chinese language classes more than
doubled, as did the number of high school students taking the AP Chinese
exam during the three year period from 2007-2010. Federally-funded
programs such as
The Language Flagship
have further spurred such growth through the implementation of
intensive teaching methodologies and programs available at the K-12 and
college/university levels.

Against this backdrop, my own Chinese
language fluency has suddenly placed me in the position of a trusted
adviser for colleagues and students who are increasingly seeking me out
for my input on how to best learn this language. So, from one long-term
student of Chinese, to all those who aspire to achieve a working
knowledge of this fascinating language, here are my top five insights:

1. Understand that Chinese, while difficult, can also be very easy to learn.

Most
people believe that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages in
the world. In some senses, this is true. The Chinese writing system is
non-alphabetic, comprising thousands of pictographs called "characters,"
which need to be studied and internalized through rote memorization and
constant reading and writing over a long period of time. Additionally,
Chinese is a "tonal" language, meaning that changing the shape of one's
voice over a single syllable can actually generate multiple words with
multiple meanings. The most famous example in Mandarin Chinese is the
syllable "ma" which, depending on how it is pronounced, might mean
"mother," "hemp," "horse," or the verb "to scold." This is a feature of
the spoken language which does not exist in the same form in Western
languages, and therefore can pose great challenges to many non-Asian
students.

However, what most non-Chinese do not realize is that
the language boasts one of the easiest grammars in the world. Sentence
structure largely mirrors that of English (subject + verb + object).
Verbs exist in a single form, with no conjugations whatsoever. There is
no gender, no plural nouns, and while mechanisms do exist to express
tense (e.g. past/present/future), they are much simpler than those of
any Western language. North American students who are much more familiar
with both Spanish and French would instantly find Chinese grammar
refreshingly basic, and much more accessible than those languages.

2. Learn Mandarin, not Cantonese.

There
are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of regional and local spoken
Chinese dialects which have developed over the long period of China's
classical history when transportation was rudimentary, broadcast media
non-existent, and most people lived and died within a small radius of
their birth places. Although speakers of all Chinese dialects share the
same, non-phonetic written language, many of the dialects are mutually
unintelligible when spoken, giving rise to the unique ability of Chinese
speakers from different regions to write to each other, even when they
cannot speak with each other. Among Chinese who have emigrated, the two
most common spoken dialects are Mandarin and Cantonese. Historically,
Cantonese dominated within the largest Chinese communities in the United
States and Canada due to a century of Chinese immigration rooted in the
southern Chinese regions of Guangdong (Canton) Province and Hong Kong.
However, with the recent massive influx of Mainland Chinese,
Mandarin-speaking immigrants in the last 20+ years,
Mandarin will soon match, and eventually overtake, Cantonese to become the dominant spoken Chinese dialect in North America.

For
non-Chinese seeking to learn the language, Mandarin is the clear
choice. Mandarin, the predominant dialect in Northern China, is the
official language of politics, education, and media in both Mainland
China and Taiwan, and it is one of the four official languages of
Singapore. Even in Hong Kong, which historically has been a
Cantonese-speaking area, Mandarin use is now ubiquitous since the return
of China's sovereignty in 1997. In Mainland China, the Chinese word for
"Mandarin" translates as the "common language," and outside of the
Mainland it is most often referred to as the "national language" — both
these terms are indicative of the broad reach which a competency in
Mandarin can afford a speaker. Fortunately, for students of Chinese,
Mandarin is also arguably the easiest of all the Chinese dialects to
learn, owing to a "tonal" structure which is much simpler than that of
Cantonese and most other dialects.

2016-06-21

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