Linda Dunsmore is an American/German travel writer and polyglot who moved out to China in her early 20s. We talked to her about this brave decision and about how and why she learnt Chinese.
I was fascinated by Asia from a very young age. After learning French and Spanish, I decided it was time for something new and different – an Asian language. I was torn between Japanese and Chinese but then decided to go for Mandarin. The reasons for this included the immense professional opportunities with companies looking for Mandarin-speaking staff but also the fact that China has the largest population in the world and the chances of meeting Chinese people almost anywhere in the world are very high. Another reason to learn Mandarin for me was also my fascination with Chinese history.
Mandarin Chinese is one of the last remaining pictorial languages in the world and a very old language on top of that. This means, rather than building words from a pool of single letters, Mandarin uses characters. Some of these characters were originally pictograms, which depicted the objects denoted. Due to China’s vast size, there have always been a great number of other languages and dialects. However, during the reign of the Jin (1115–1234) and Yuan dynasties in northern China, the dialects of the North China Plain around the capital were combined and made into a standard Old Mandarin for easier communication around the kingdom. Another interesting point about Mandarin is that it is also a tonal language. This means, each character has a tone associated with it, which makes its meaning clear. There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese.
If I hadn’t learned Chinese, I would be a completely different person today – that’s for sure. Learning Chinese for me was not only about the language itself, but also the cultural aspects that come with it. Grasping Chinese enabled me to better understand Asian cultures and integrate into life in Asia. I made a lot of friends while living in China because I spoke Chinese. I also became a lot more independent during my time in China as I had to figure things out by myself and fight my way through daily life. That’s why my Chinese language skills improved quickly.
Today, living in Korea, I still benefit from my experience in China and my Mandarin language skills. It helps a little when learning Korean. Also, some aspects of Korean culture are similar to Chinese culture, which allows me to have a better understanding of the different customs and traditions here.
While I do think that English will remain the business language in the world for a little longer, Chinese is definitely getting more and more important as well. There are thousands of companies from the West doing business with China. Despite the fact that most of these business encounters are held in English, companies have recognized the benefit of employing Mandarin-speaking staff. This also has a lot to do with the Chinese idea of “Guanxi” (关系). Guanxi describes the basic dynamic in personalised networks of influence and is a central idea in Chinese society. For business partners, this means that before even talking about business and sealing the deal, you will have to engage in a range of social activities to build a relationship between the two parties. This includes dinners, karaoke sessions, drinking, and more. Having employees who understand this concept is a great asset for any company doing business with China. If, in addition, there are also employees who can speak Mandarin, this would be a huge plus and work greatly in favour of the company.
Thanks so much Linda for sharing your thoughts with us. You can find out more about Linda and her tips for learning Chinese at lindagoeseast
German/American girl in her 20s with a great passion for languages, photography, traveling and great food. Currently based in Korea.
What Black Friday means – for you
How language learning helps us de-stress and stay cheerful
‘More than Words’ Podcast. Episode 1: Language and Culture
Which language should I learn after English?
Where does the word Europe come from?