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Why not try it with Chinese?

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Many foreigners still ponder upon the feasibility of learning Chinese. This dilemma is by no mean new, but as China gradually acquires more stature on the international scene, the issue in question becomes even more crucial. Although it seems that English can retain its position as a lingua franca, it is increasingly beneficial to learn Mandarin Chinese. But taking into the account the complexity of the language and myriads of its peculiarities does it present itself as a beneficial idea? As I myself undertook this in some eyes daring, purposeless or at least preposterous task I want to shed light on the most important issues concerning learning Chinese. At the same time, please bear it in mind that I am by no means a sage sharing all the ins and outs with you. Chinese is to me, but a mystical entity having no precise beginning and no end and I am myself yet another wanderer who managed to get some glimpse of the light escaping from the half open door. 

 
1. Why would you learn Chinese, when you communicate in English everywhere?

Well, this view is often presented by foreigners who haven't yet visited China, but clash with Chinese reality or rather a hard landing helps to come to terms with reality (sometimes in an unpleasant way). And by its present state, even though there are more people learning English in China today than in any other country, it will still require substantial time to observe tangible results of this pronounced interest in the language, especially in the countryside. Chinese A- tier cities are also inhabited by substantial groups of foreigners and have international districts, but not unexpectedly they are somehow isolated from the main scope of everyday activities. In other words, if you are interested in clubbing or spending your free time in bars and with other foreigners, then you need not worry, but if you want to take part in everyday regular life, then learning Chinese is inevitable. And you can take my word for granted, that it is truly worth effort.

2. Everyone can learn Chinese

During my lengthy stay in China, I've met people coming from the majority of the world's countries and representing a dazzling variety of folds of life: teenagers, overseas Chinese, students, diplomats, technical workers, people who sold their flats in Europe divorced and came here to start everything anew, to name a few. To tell the truth, I haven't heard of a single person that after wholeheartedly devoting some time to his studies on Chinese, wouldn't notice some substantial improvement. 'Failures' are in most cases people who are too afraid of starting or had some unpleasant experience in the initial months of studying, which quite naturally are tiresome and even vexing (it takes especially many efforts to master the first 100 characters), however after that, learning next characters comes easier. And what is very important at an initial stage I have never met more patient teachers (and I have some broad experiences in the educational field) than my Chinese teachers.

According to my personal observation, it comes easier to learn Chinese for people who operate in at least 2 languages, but by no means it excludes users of a single language from mastering and perfecting their Chinese.

3. Some basic facts about Chinese

To begin with Chinese in its Mandarin version is the most popular first language spoken nowadays with as many, as 900 million users. What may be interesting, English the world's second most important "first" language has reportedly close to 500 million native users or putting it the other way just half the number of Chinese native users. 

Defying many superstitions, the dominant form of Chinese language today, so called Putonghua (普通话;common language) based on northern dialects of Chinese and the dialect of Beijing in particular is just a standardized form of unusually rich multitude of various Chinese dialects and languages.

As it happens, there are many independent languages spoken by minorities or dialects (most provinces and cities have their own dialects) that according to some researchers resemble languages. Why am I telling you this? Just to make you realize that there are many Chinese to whom Putonghua is not a first (native) language. In fact, standard Chinese language is just but an established and agreed medium of communication, rather than a natural language.

Keeping this in mind fluency in Putonghua is an absolute necessity in modern China for young and ambitious people who want to pursue professional carrier. At any rate, in many places (especially in southern parts of China) it may not be enough to communicate.

4. Is it really impossible to learn Chinese characters?

Without a moment's hesitation I am obliged to admit that Chinese characters are the most complex writing system I had encountered in the course of learning many languages in the course of my life. To begin with, there are two basic versions of modern Chinese characters: simplified, that is used in mainland China, and traditional widespread in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. According to estimates, there are altogether more than 100 thousand characters used in Chinese, but only about 4-5 thousand of the, are used in everyday life.  The very fact that something isn't easy, doesn't mean that you shouldn't at least give it a try. After all, Rome wasn't built in one day.

There is an altogether different philosophy underlying use of characters, therefore, they present different advantages and difficulties. Making a sentence in Chinese resembles building something out of Lego blocks as you don't combine letters (sounds), but  rather specific meanings, for example:

I want to eat 我- me 想- want 吃- eat 饭- meal

At the initial period of learning Chinese, it seems that hanzi (汉字) as Chinese characters are known, pose a sort of evil barrier keeping you at bay by some fiendish force, trying to strain you and make learning close to impossible, but finally you can arrive at a conclusion that among world's multiple alphabets the Chinese characters are not more superficial than our 'A' and are equally a product of a great human mind.

I won't pretend that learning characters is always a bed of roses, nor the most pleasant experience in one's life, but it's close to impossible to compare the boundless satisfaction that you attain from being able to read another billboard on the street with any other feeling.

5. Does it only makes sense to study Chinese if you start at a very early age?

During my first semester in China, our university organized us a talk with one of English teachers (judging from his look well in his fifties) who shared some of his experiences learning Chinese. You can believe me or not, but he claimed to have started learning Chinese at the age of forty and according to our Chinese teachers he was really good. Learning languages, although ripe with some peculiarities of its own kind is not too different from other activities of life and at the first place requires persistence. The sky isn't the limit, limits only exist in people's minds and usually evaporate under the impact of the power radiating from their resolution.

Some scientists point out to the existence of some mysterious border age, after which it is supposedly more difficult to learn a foreign language (some set it somewhere around 25 yo). To be frank, I am a bit skeptical as to their findings, maybe this rule doesn't apply in China, or in other instance probably so many people I've met on my way are an example of some medical aberration.

Attempt at a summary:

In any event, in the 21st century with thousands of many sophisticated tools easily accessible at our arms length. Stemming from that fact, learning a foreign language has become easier than at any other given point in human history. So why not give it a try?

My final advice to everybody contemplating starting to learn Chinese is: don't listen too much to the advices and opinions of others, for a shirt that didn't fit somebody's body may after all look perfect on you.

Source: eBeijing.gov.cn
Date: 2016-03-18