As a new year dawns in China, we’ve been finding out a bit more about Mandarin. What it is, how to learn it and why you might want to start in this ‘year of the dog’.
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
So spoke Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher and teacher from the 5th century BC. It’s a piece of advice as relevant for language learning as for anything: you learn best when you work it out for yourself.
The immersive method of learning a language makes your brain do the work, rather than just feeding it translations. You immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of the language and learn the direct connection between the things around you and the words that describe them – without reference to your mother tongue. This is especially useful for languages that are very different from our own, like Mandarin, where we have new sounds and alphabets to learn.
Mandarin Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family and is one of the oldest languages in the world (it is estimated to be about 3000 years old). It is a tonal language and uses four different tones and a neutral tone to distinguish between syllables that otherwise would sound identical.
Chinese is not a phonetic language and learning how to speak it doesn’t mean you know how to write it. There are thousands of Chinese characters used in written Mandarin and learning them all is quite a challenge.
Fortunately, a phonetic method of using the language, called pinyin, has been developed. This enables the language to be written using a Romanic alphabet system. This system was first developed by missionaries in the sixteenth century but has become especially useful for all Chinese with the dawn of the computer age. Without this simplified version of written Mandarin, Chinese computer users would need very big keyboards!
Mandarin Chinese has been identified by the British Council as one of the most important languages for the UK in its languages for the future report. It has also been called the language of champions—difficult to learn but the language of a nation that’s ever more important.
Although the majority of Mandarin speakers live within the borders of China, there’s more and more need for Mandarin speakers elsewhere as well. The growing economic might of Chinese means that its influence as a language is ever on the increase and more and more businesses in the Western world are looking for Chinese speakers.
Increasing numbers of future-minded Westerners are spending time in China as part of their studies, or even emigrating there altogether. People like Josh Summers, who deliberately chose to immerse himself in the Chinese language by moving to a remote part of Western China. Or Linda Dunsmore who bravely went out to study Chinese when in her early 20s.
In Britain, we have nearly a quarter of a million British Chinese (2001 census). Most of them are now second or third generation, and not all of them speak Mandarin. Some, like video blogger Shu, are trying to reconnect with their heritage by learning the language as an adult.
Whatever your motivations for learning the language, Chinese offers an entry into a very different and fascinating culture, with roots stretching back thousands of years. For those wishing to visit China, learning a bit of the language is a huge advantage. English is being taught more and more in China, but it is still only known by a small minority. If you want to converse with ordinary Chinese people on your travels, some basic Mandarin is an essential.
So why not set yourself a challenge this year and start learning some of the basic Mandarin with Rosetta Stone. Make the year of the dog a year of dedication and exploration, discover a new culture and language, and get the skills you need for the future….
Find out how the Rosetta Stone system works with our free introductory lesson:
The Chinese Zodiac calendar goes in 12 yearly cycles. So the last year of the dog was 2006 and the next one will be in 2030. According to Chinese traditions, the type of year you were born has a big influence on the type of person you become. So if you were born in the year of the dog, you are likely to be clever, loyal and dependable – just like some dogs.
Language learner, teacher and contributing author to the Rosetta Stone magazine
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