Monthly Archives: June 2008

The Difficulty of Learning Mandarin: An Alternate View

Professor Lu Bisong who is the President of both the Beijing New Asia University and International Society for Chinese Teaching in the World, and the ex-President of the Beijing Language Institute, wrote a piece for a website called TransWorld Education entitled “Don’t Think Chinese is as Difficult as you Imagine.”

I could not find a reference to when the article was published, but it does mention the the world is now “past the gate of the 21st Century,” so I assume it to be fairly recent.

This article is probably more appropriate for students of Chinese who already have a few classes under their belts. It is not written at a level that novices would understand.

My experience with and knowledge of learning Mandarin differs dramatically from that of Dr. Lu. That is, I am a non-native speaker and not an academic, whereas Dr. Lu is a native speaker and a professor. In many ways, he is better qualified than I am to comment upon the intricacies of the Chinese language. My experience is both “on the street” and in classrooms.

I think that the article makes the mistake of largely focusing on a few arcane features of the Chinese language, attempting to explain how they make learning Chinese easy, and ignores many of the difficulties that foreign learners experience. I applaud the news that professors are finding more efficient ways of teaching characters and writing, and I agree that Chinese grammar is easy to master, but I seriously doubt statements like “In my opinion, the difficulty in learning Chinese pronunciation is relative in nature; that is to say, this difficulty can be surmounted by constant practice, and your pronunciation can then be like Chinese.” Certain individual sounds in Chinese may be easy to reproduce, but stringing a series of words together in a sentence, using accurate tones for each syllable, is a difficult task for a Western mouth.

Further, the fact of the matter is that the Chinese writing system has no alphabet, and that even though there are only 100+ radicals, a few of which make up any one character, memorizing the stroke order and the combination of radicals that form a character is a very difficult task for a foreign learner.

I’ll let the reader decide for him/herself whether or not Dr. Lu successfully provides support for the thesis that learning Chinese isn’t all that difficult. Comments welcome.

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The Economist on Learning Mandarin

Check out this Economist story from Nov 2007. As supportive as I am of people who are truly dedicated to learning Mandarin and learning it well, I agree with many of the points made by the author of the piece.

For a spirited discussion of the Economist article, check out this entry on the China Law Blog. Pay particular attention to the comments. You’ll get a good view of both sides of the debate.

For those who read my blog regularly and still aren’t sure what my take is on the learning Mandarin craze, let me summarize my views here.

1. Mandarin Chinese is an extremely difficult language to learn well.

2. Most people who set out to learn Mandarin give up before they become fluent.

3. Most of the people who quit before they got fluent had no idea what they were getting into when they started.

4.People who really want to learn Mandarin get as much help from me as they desire.

5. I’ve never tried to actually discourage someone from learning Mandarin. I’ve only tried to help people understand what they’re getting themselves into.

A note on my qualifications: I first learned Mandarin twenty years ago while living in Taiwan. I have a B.A. in Chinese Literature and an MBA from a well-known program. I have used Mandarin on a daily basis for eleven years in my professional life, working as a translator, interpreter, executive, corporate trainer, and consultant. My wife and her large family are all native speakers of Mandarin and while my Chinese typing skills are average and my character writing is weak, my spoken Mandarin is quite fluent and I can read at an adult level without a problem.

If you need some advice on how to improve your Mandarin, feel free to drop a comment.

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