Learning Chinese: Delusions of Ease and Convenience

I’ve written often and in great depth about the challenges involved in learning Mandarin well. It isn’t something that can be accomplished quickly, yet so much is written in the media and on blogs about learning Mandarin that makes it seem as if people believe that learning Mandarin is akin to learning Spanish or Italian.

Uh, folks, learning to speak and read fluent Mandarin is more like learning to design, build, and fly your own rocket ship. As my old friend Lou used to say, “It’s butt hard.”

It would seem that anyone who takes only a cursory look at the differences between Mandarin and Engish would quickly come to the above conclusion, and make an educated decision about whether or not it makes sense to spend the time and effort involved in learning Mandarin well. But no, most of what I see out there is along the lines of the following Q&A on an HR website in the UK:  HR tip: Learning Chinese.

I think the answer to the question from an HR perspective, was a sage one. But from a language learning perspective, both the asker and the answerer are somewhat naive about the difficult of learning Mandarin.

How would I answer the question? Like this.

“Unless this employee is planning on spending a lifetime, or at least several years, working, living, and traveling throughout greater China or a community of overseas Chinese somewhere, taking a three or four month course in Chinese is an exercise in time-wasting and futility. Neither the company nor the employee will get any short-term benefit out of such a course, none whatsoever. The employee will not be able to communicate at even the most basic level after only three or four months. If he/she is going to take a foundation course and then live in greater China for a few years, practicing his/her Chinese every day, then it might be worth it, but he/she won’t learn a think via podcast. Get the employee into a classroom with a qualified instructor.”

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