The government, business leaders and probably your parents (if you’re at school) will tell you it’s good to learn Mandarin Chinese, but the language’s reputation as impossible may make you balk at the challenge. Weicong Liang, Chinese Instructor and Teaching Supervisor at the Business Confucius Institute, University of Leeds, demystifies.
In my experience, most British students are gifted in learning languages and are usually sensitive to Asian culture. This is their biggest advantage when learning Chinese. It is however understandable that some learners think Chinese is a difficult language. In the UK, Chinese is not the first foreign language choice, while European languages such as French, Spanish and German are much more popular.
Chinese grammar is in many ways similar to English grammar. A simple Chinese sentence structure consists of a subject, a predicate and an object. For example, ‘I wash my hands’ in Chinese is 我 Wo (I) 洗 xi (wash) 手 shou (hands). Chinese gammar is even simpler in some ways. For instance, the Chinese language does not have different forms based on gender, or singular/plural. There are some differences between Chinese and English, but it is not hard to trace the clue and bridge the gap.
A major difference between the two languages is that there are a lot of measure words in Chinese. The place and use of measure words in Chinese are similar to how the English word ‘piece’ is placed and used in the phrase ‘a piece of paper’. Although most objects (‘paper’, in this case) have their own measure words, objects of the same kind or with similar characteristics use the same measure words. For instance, 纸 zhi (paper), 报纸 baozhi (newspaper), 照片 zhaopian (photo), 画儿 huar (painting) and 邮票 youpiao (stamp) share the measure word 张 zhang (piece). Even 床 chuang (bed) uses the same measure word, ‘zhang’, because those objects all have a flat surface.
Another major difference is the characters. Let’s take 人 (ren) as an example. A single 人 means a person, a human being. Two 人 make a new character, 从 (cong), which means to follow (one person followed by another person). Three 人 make 众, which means the masses or a crowd. Likewise, a single 木 means a tree or wood. Two 木 make 林, meaning woods. Three 木 make 森, which means a forest. We can build more complex Chinese characters by learning basic components and single-structure characters step by step. It is like we learn various English words by starting from the 26 letters.
Pronunciation is not a problem for British students. Over the 60 freshmen I’ve been teaching are beginners. None of them has trouble pronouncing Chinese (those whose mother tongue is French or Italian often have more difficulties). What most British students may find difficult are the four tones, which they don’t have in English. But you can solve this problem with practice, and I believe it can be done within the first semester at university.
What you can do after six months to a year of learning Mandarin Chinese
Usually, after six months’ study, most students can independently pass customs at a Chinese airport, make appointments with friends, ask for directions, take public transport, order food in canteens, bargain in the mall or markets, make hotel reservations, talk about the weather, buy travel tickets or film tickets, describe things and express their interests and opinions. Some students can even travel without guidance to other East Asian countries linguistically related to Chinese (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and so on). If a British learner spends enough time learning Chinese for one year, she or he can even directly enter a university in China.