Got Mandarin?

By Bryan • china • 22 May 2006

What’s the deal with learning Mandarin?

Despite the fact that I’ve studied formally last year and continue my studies on a part-time basis, I’m mixed on Mandarin. Not on the language itself, but on the apparent Mandarin crazy trend that seems to be propagating throughout the world. I frequent a number of ESL China forums and in the past year there has been a definite increase in the number of queries regarding language learning in China (not of the English variety). The requests largely are looking for info regarding locales for study, but some post questions regarding the benefits of learning the language and it is all to common to hear the repeated “China economic blah blah blah…” justifications. I don’t necessarily place blame as I thought exactly along those lines in the months leading up to my entrance into Big Red in 2004.

What I find somewhat odd though, is the idea that many people believe that Mandarin language skills represent a magic bullet to economic opportunity/prosperity. Obviously, there are those with such skills who have cashed in substantially and students attending such schools as the Nanjing John Hopkins Center (a masters program in International Relations conducted in Mandarin essentially requiring complete fluency in both written and spoken Mandarin) are head-hunted by foreign firms with high salaries. Acquiring Japanese language skills was pretty hot in the 80’s…..China isn’t Japan, but that trend offers an interesting comparison

However, the foreigners I’ve met with the highest salaries and degrees of responsibility have little, if any Mandarin outside of survival/shopping skills. English is the language of commerce in China, and it is spoken quite well and often almost fluently by many Chinese locals (who have 10+ years of English training and many have studied overseas), especially those in Shanghai, Beijing and the other international mirrors of China. Foreigners with those tasty expat jobs tend to bring something more to the table than language skills. Many are engineers, skilled managers, holders of advanced degrees or providing other functions which cannot be satisfied by locals. Speaking Mandarin will help you, but unless you have an essential skill, the high salaries will probably float on by. You might find yourself managing a bar or restaurant though.

I have not intention of achieving any sort of fluency in Mandarin required to shift the working language from English to Chinese. Now, I study largely because I live here, hold an interest in characters and have chosen Mandarin to be my foreign language…although not a very well spoken foreign language. I feel that it is important for everyone to have a working knowledge of another language, and I don’t feel that it really matters what language that is. I don’t feel that having a little knowledge of Mandarin will make me any different from someone who has equal level of knowledge of German, although it does make me different from someone who only has knowledge of one language.

From the Globe and Mail.

Ms. Purdon, who was raised in rural Alberta, and her husband, Peter, enrolled their children, Emma, 13, and Liam, 11, in the Mandarin program after hearing about it at a dinner party when the children were preschoolers.

Ms. Purdon said that through the years, she has often received confused looks from both non-Asian and Asian parents who wondered why they would want their children to learn “the hardest language on earth.”

There were several reasons why the Purdons enrolled their children, she said, but mainly they wanted to open doors for them. Liam is now in Grade 6; Emma is in Grade 8.

“With the economy the way it’s going, I keep saying ‘thank heavens.’ The choices and opportunities they will have will be tenfold over another Caucasian.”

Even though I don’t really agree with what these guys are saying, I wish there was choice like this available when I was younger.

*my Chinese is laughable at best.

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2 Responses

  1. may

    :) well, it is said that more than 30 million people outside China are learning Chinese now. you know, we are just too happy to hear that, though as a Chinese, i can’t clearly feel that kind of magic power lies in the Chinese chracters as many foreigners said. and i don’t know why so many people around world want to learn Chinese, the most widely circulated explanation is just what you have mentioned.(China economic blah blah blah…”)maybe i could turn to Martha for an answer;)
    i still remember, when i was a little child, as many others, i had to write every new Chinese character for at least 10 times every single day so as to keep it in mind. It’s not a easy job. so i think people are great if they could only recognize those characters :)
    i am living in the xianlin campus(仙林校区xian lin xiao qu) hehe

  2. 我没去过仙林校区…合合

    May, you are a classic example of why English is King.

    Foreigners are taught the same character writing skills…repeat, repeat, repeat. I repeat, but can never remember the stroke orders. I’ll remember how to read it though.

    Personally can’t stand pinyin (hate it actually). It’s quite useless for anything other than pronunciation. If you are starting out with Mandarin, ditch the pinyin as soon as you’ve got the basic sounds down and get yourself into characters. It’s worth the effort.

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