For the past year or so, the number of U.S. news items related to learning Mandarin has exploded. Just today, I read an article announcing the opening of another Confucius Institute, this time in Southern California at UCLA. The Confucius Institutes are vehicles for promoting Chinese culture, and serve as Mandarin learning centers, a la the British Council with its English programs.
In this week’s International Edition of Newsweek, Asia scholar Stephen Noerper writes in his piece “Over a Billion Served,” that the Chinese government predicts that 100 million people worldwide will be studying Mandarin as a second language by 2010. The U.S. Department of Education has set the goal of having 5% of all students in the U.S. enrolled in Mandarin language programs within the next two years.
What nobody is really talking about* is whether or not these people will actually be able to learn to speak Mandarin with any degree of fluency. For anyone who has been thinking “Gee, I’d like to learn Mandarin,” I think you ought to know something about learning Mandarin: getting fluent in Mandarin is extremely difficult, and very few non-Chinese people are able to become functional speakers and writers of Mandarin.
(Warning: Horn tooting follows) As an American who speaks, reads, and writes fluent Mandarin, I always encourage people who want to learn Mandarin to remain dedicated to the task. Matter of fact, over the past eighteen years, I’ve spent a good many hours offering advice and coaching to would-be Sinophiles who want to learn to speak the language of the Middle Kingdom.
Some language learners DO learn to speak and write Mandarin fluently. I worked with a group of missionaries way back when, and I’d say 20% of them were really fluent after a year or so in the country. But these were missionaries, guys and gals who devoted their lives to language (and scripture) study. The other 80% either gave up or achieved marginal functionality in the language. So yes, some people are able to get fluent enough in a few years to be able to interpret, translate, conduct business, etc.
Still, the fact of the matter is, the percentage of Mandarin students who are able stick with their learning program, overcoming the stress, frustration, and constant headaches involved in becoming fully, functionally fluent in Chinese is lower than the Navy Seal training graduation rate. I’d venture to guess that there are plenty of Navy Seals who can handle starvation and sleep deprivation but who would ring the bell after a few months of learning Mandarin.
Why is learning Mandarin so difficult? Check out this article by David Moser on http://www.pinyin.info for a humorous primer on why learning Mandarin is so tough. Mr. Moser’s article deals with some of the technical problems inherent in learning Mandarin. To add my own two cents, there are some very practical problems for native English speakers who want to learn Mandarin, namely:
1. You won’t really get fluent in Mandarin if you don’t live in Taiwan or China for at least six months to a year.
2. You can’t get fluent in Mandarin unless it is your all-encompassing mission in life to do so. Most people don’t have that kind of time or desire.
3. Even if you get somewhat fluent, you will probably always sound like a foreigner, and Chinese people will laugh at you and correct you all the day long. Are you prepared to deal with this somewhat disconcerting cultural difference? Note: I don’t think that Chinese people realize how hurtful it is to laugh at a foreigner who mispronounces a word or phrase in Mandarin. For them, the situation is humorous, but not really in a “you’re an idiot” sort of way. The problem, of course, is that even if you approach this situation objectively, there is something cutting about someone laughing at you or publicly correcting you that is difficult to digest without some difficulty.
4 . You’ll probably never learn to write by hand very well. You’ll have to get by with using a phonemic alphabet called BoPoMoFo to type, and your writing will always seem foreign.
For a more comprehensive report on the difficulties involved in learning Mandarin, see my article in Taiwanease Magazine entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Learn Mandarin.” (Note: The link takes you to a .pdf download. My article begins on page 4, and is written under my pen name, Steven D. Quinn).
I don’t want to discourage people who want to learn Mandarin, I just want them to know what they are getting into. Ergo, if you are thinking of sending your kid or your next China-based product manager off to weekend Mandarin classes, hoping that they’ll learn enough to “get by” after six months or a year of classes, I think you’re dreaming.
I’d first find out whether or not your student has a burning desire to speak fluent Mandarin, and is willing to stick with the program until he is indeed fluent enough to function in a Mandarin-speaking society. Otherwise, you’d be better off sending him to a modern Chinese history course, taught in English.
*To give credit to Mr. Noerper, he does mention in his article that “…the language is hard, with more than 2,500 characters generally employed in daily writing and a complex tonal speaking system.” These are good points, but they are only the tip of the linguistic iceberg.
If any of my readers wants specific advice about what you can realistically expect out of U.S.-based Mandarin classes, please feel free to e-mail me.