If you believe the media in the UK It seems that Mandarin Chinese is the language of the future- Just a few points from my perspective.
When I decided to go to China I had an eye on perhaps starting to learn the language, being able to do the basics and get by. Unlike others, I didn’t initially go there simply to learn the language, I was more concerned with living in another culture and seeing with my own eyes just how different (or not) life could be in China.
I quickly found out that living in Changchun almost required that I had some sort of competency in the language – just to be able to get by- and so I started off by having informal lessons a couple of nights a week given by a few friends (who also spoke some English, which made the first stages a little easier – though later on you would rather have a teacher that doesn’t understand English).
I decided against formal lessons, firstly because they were incredibly expensive (by Chinese standards- and everything must be considered relatively) and secondly because this was more of an interest to me, not my soul purpose.
I followed a series of textbooks, which after getting used to, were really quite good. I could go outside and practice everyday. I would practise just by virtue of living in Changchun and doing everyday things without help from others. At first (and it took about 3-4 months before I had the confidence to do this by myself) It is great to have so much help from others, especially when trying to adapt to the new country. But after a while I knew that the only was I was going to advance from constantly being nannied around to do things would be to put some time into trying to communicate myself.
The initial learning curve is very steep and enough to put off most people I think. It put me off for a while, it takes months and months just to get the basics right – then I found QQ (Chinese chat software) and this helped me no-end.
Personally I learn much faster if I can write things down and typing Chinese on the keyboard not only re-inforced this but gave me the chance to associate the pinyin sounds with the characters.
This is perhaps the hardest part to get your head around at first, the language not being phonetic – having to rely on pinyin which has its limitations (and in my opinion hinders advancement after a while of studying) and associating it with the correct character.
I thought about learning to write with my hand (as they teach you on the university courses) but decided that this would take an inordinate amount of time, and that beyond kudos, writing by hand has realistically very little real use. Yes I am interested in the history and culture behind the written script, but I don’t think have to learn to write with a pen to be able understand.
I wouldn’t want to become like so many of the Chinese students – products of the Chinese education system – can write and read but cant talk or effectively communicate English – despite having been learning the language for 10 or more years.
Indeed quite a few foreigners come to Changchun each year in order to learn Chinese, 99% go to one of the various universities in town that offers a course. Jilin University (jida), North East Normal (shida), Changchun university (changda) teachers college (changshi) all offer courses, usually over a period of 1 semester.
Most are students from either Africa, Russia or Korea and many have a year in a Chinese university as part of their degree back home. Others, particularly African and Korean students come to take part in language training separate from any other education.
The tuition varies from about 6-8K per semester – you may think this is nothing -but in Chinese terms this is very, very expensive.
Having spent a few years working in various Chinese universities I have come to understand that they are quite different from their western counterparts. They still employ very traditional teaching methods, repetition, extreme deference to the teacher – it’s about accepting not questioning. One must understand that the education system is linked to the political system, not just in content but more so in the way students are taught to logically reason and think (or not in most cases) for themselves. These techniques do work for some people but for most I believe they hinder more than they help.
It’s all about passing tests, ticking boxes -getting the right piece of paper. To an extent It’s False learning – just recital and remembering something but being un-able to understand and apply the concept.
Many may say that this system does motivate some people to learn – because they have to – but it is not good to create an atmosphere of trust where one can feel happy to express themselves in front of others (which links back into the political context of chinese education) . From my experience some of the Foreign students that had been studying at Chinese unis were similar to the students that I taught in chinese unis in the sense that they had become products of the system – write and read very well – but could not put this to good use in the real world – just to pass HSK or CET tests.
Like others, I had this idea that perhaps if you could get to a decent level at Mandarin then it would be a great advantage and open all sorts of doors in terms of career prospects back home.
It is brilliant to be able to commuincate with people who have had such a different background from yourself. It allows you to learn so much about different ways of life, which by not speaking their language you’d never find out. It makes life more fun and you start to understand how the langauge effects why things are done in certain ways.
But from my experience outside China I would say that It is, to all intents and purposes, not very useful.
It is an interesting tool an extra (translation excepted) but it is secondary to using a skill in another profession. Certainly in the UK, demand for mandarin jobs is very low, despite what peoples perceptions may be, having another European language will present you with far more job opportunities. Whether this will change in the future, I don’t know. but for now the best place to use the language is in China…