Mandarin Chinese is a language that's spoken by billions. Increasingly, it's a language that Westerners are looking to learn. Here, we take a look at how, and why.
If there’s one language in the world that’s worth learning, it’s Mandarin Chinese. It’s the language with the most native speakers in the world, at more than nine hundred million – and, as the country’s economy grows, it’s sure to be spoken more widely.
While Mandarin lacks the international reach of Indo-European languages like Spanish and English, the sheer scale of the population in China puts it right at the top of the pile. China is of vital importance to trading partners in East Asia, as explained from a South Korean perspective in this open step.
But it’s also crucial to countries in the West. Given the economic might of modern China and its significance to global supply chains, the Mandarin language is certainly worth getting to grips with.
Is Mandarin Chinese?
Of course, the term ‘Mandarin’ is often taken as synonymous with the Chinese language, in general. But there are actually between seven and ten different dialects of Chinese. Speak one, and there’s no guarantee you’ll be understood by everyone you meet.
Mandarin Chinese is by far the most common, spoken by more than two-thirds of the population. It’s worth being aware of the other dialects, such as Yue (that’s Cantonese), Wu and Jin, even if you don’t learn to speak them.
Where is Chinese spoken?
Chinese is spoken mostly in China. But you’ll still find it in other countries, too.
As well as being spoken in the People’s Republic of China (or simply, China, as it is referred to in the West), Mandarin is also spoken widely in Taiwan and Singapore. In both cases, it’s a variant of the version of the Mandarin spoken in the People’s Republic.
Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong and Macau, as well as in some parts of China. While you might be understood if you speak Cantonese across China, it’s still important to be aware of the local dialect in the area you’re in.
If you’re interested in the Taiwanese version of Mandarin, then it makes sense to take a course in the language from a Taiwanese university. The National Yang-Ming Chiao Tung University offers a four-week introductory course on the subject, entitled Fall in Love with Mandarin.
What are the benefits of learning a second language?
There are several tangible benefits to learning a second language, all of which apply to the variants of Chinese. Keep reading to learn more about them.
If you’re looking to get out and see the world, then a grasp of foreign languages can be immensely practical. You don’t have to be a fluent speaker; even a little bit of knowledge can go a long way — allowing you to book hotels, order food, hail taxis and ask for directions.
The ability to speak a foreign language can be hugely lucrative. It’ll allow you to more easily live and work in parts of the world where that language is spoken. It’ll also allow you to more easily trade and co-operate with partners and colleagues in those parts of the world.
Best of all, it’ll allow you to work as a translator, acting as an intermediary between influential people. Given the scale and importance of relations between the English and Chinese-speaking worlds, the demand for quality interpreters is strong.
When you speak the same language as people, you get that much closer to understanding how they think and act. You’ll also get a stronger insight into the works of art they’ve produced, and their history.
Given that China has a history that stretches back for thousands of years, and it’s produced some of the most important cultural and artistic works, this is a benefit that applies especially to the Chinese language.
Not everyone can speak a second language competently. And, if it’s a difficult language like Mandarin Chinese, the minority is even smaller. Consequently, you’ll be able to impress people if you can speak it. And if those people might be offering you a job, even better.
Learning other languages
In the case of Chinese, this is a fairly major one. Knowledge of Mandarin can make it easier to learn many other Sinitic and Sino-Tibetan languages, like Burmese. If you’ve got Mandarin under your belt, suddenly a world of lesser-known languages is opened up to you.
Why is Chinese a good language to learn?
We’ve looked at why a second language might be a good thing in general. But there are a few reasons to learn the Mandarin language, in particular.
1. Career opportunities
It’s no secret that the economic might of China has been steadily building for decades. According to the World Bank, growth in the country has averaged around 10% year-on-year for several decades – with more than 800 million people lifted out of poverty.
The country now has deep economic links with the West, with more employers than ever doing their business across several language barriers.
By 2035, it’s likely that two-thirds of the demand for new oil will come from Asia – with the People’s Republic of China responsible for the bulk of that extra demand. This is explained in great detail in this open step, which comes from Hanyang University’s course on the future of oil, gas and shale.
The country is the second-largest economy in the world, as explained by Prof. Fan in this open step from MacMillan’s course on Asia’s successful maths teaching methods.
Consequently, the ability to speak Mandarin Chinese is enormously valuable if you’re looking to work in a career that involves dealing with Chinese buyers or suppliers. Even if you don’t intend to start living and working in a Chinese-speaking country, these skills can help you negotiate trade deals and other, important business matters.
It should also be noted that the ability to speak Mandarin will reflect well on you in general, as it demonstrates a certain level of worldliness and the lengths you’re willing to go to in order to get your message across.
2. The culture
China is home to history and culture that stretches back for thousands of years. In fact, it’s probably not all that useful to refer to a single ‘Chinese’ culture, given the disparate state of the country, even under the rule of the modern Communist Party.
In fact, China has had a significant say in the history of the world. Sinologists tend to agree that four great inventions – namely paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass – made their way from China to Europe via the famous Silk Road.
As impressive as this sounds, it’s still a very broad-brush portrayal of the influence and value of Chinese culture. To really grasp the contribution of this part of the world, speaking the language can be invaluable.
If you’d like more insight into the history of Asia, and its influence on the West, then you can find it on this open step from Sungkyunkwan University, in Seoul. You might also look into our other open steps on Asian history.
This video open step, presented by Yonsei University’s John Delury, explains the decision by Chairman Mao to send troops into Korea in 1950. This open step, from the same university, deals with the fragmentation of the country in the wake of the Second World War.
3. The literature
Chinese literature goes back thousands of years. Perhaps the most influential early texts were those centred around Confucius – but later poems and classical fiction would advance a range of literary forms (well before the Enlightenment would precipitate a similar Golden Age in Europe).
Chinese literature, both ancient and modern, comes from an entirely different cultural context than literature written in the West. To really appreciate it, however, you have to read it in the original language. There’s also a more practical obstacle – many works of Chinese literature haven’t been translated into English, so you have no choice but to enjoy them as they stand.
If you want to understand modern China, then a grasp of Confucianism, in particular, is important. As Professor May-Tan Mullins of the University of Nottingham’s China Campus explains in this open step the revival of Confucian thought might amount to ‘more than just state propaganda’.
4. The food
In Britain, we’re familiar with Chinese food – or at least, a Westernised version of it. By learning the Chinese language, you’ll start to understand exactly what all of those words on the menu mean. ‘Chow mein’, unsurprisingly, means ‘stir-fried noodles’. ‘Lo mein’ means ‘tossed noodles’.
In time, you might feel more comfortable ordering something that’s a little bit less familiar – because you’ll be able to understand what’s on the menu. You might even develop an appreciation for Chinese cuisine that doesn’t come in a small cardboard box.
How to learn Mandarin
As with any language, the best (and only) way to learn, is with the help of regular practice and study. You’ll progress quickly if you’ve got quality resources to draw from, and the guidance and feedback of teachers who can speak the language themselves.
Fortunately, FutureLearn offers several courses designed to get you off to a strong start. There’s the Introduction to Mandarin from the Shanghai International Studies University, which is the perfect beginner’s course.
Then there’s the HSK level 1 test from ChinesePlus. ChinesePlus is an international non-profit network comprising organisations from countries across East Asia. It was established during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the program looks set to continue long into the future.
How hard is it to learn Chinese?
Mandarin Chinese is among the more difficult languages to learn for a native English speaker. As well as having to wrestle with unfamiliar words and tenses, you’ve also got a completely new writing system and tone-based pronunciation to worry about.
The written form of the language doesn’t use an alphabet as most European languages do. Nor does it use an Arabic-style abjad (which is a bit like an alphabet with the vowels omitted) or a Japanese-style syllabary (where each character stands for a different syllable). Rather, the characters in a piece of Chinese text each stand for an object or an idea. They don’t bear any relation to the way the word is pronounced, so you have to really know your vocabulary.
There’s also the tonality of the language to grapple with. There are four distinct tones: a rising one, a falling one, a level one and one that sort of falls, then rises. The words for ‘mother’, ‘hemp’ ‘horse’ and ‘scold’, are all identical, except for the way you pronounce the vowel.
If you’re a native speaker of a related Asian language, like Punjabi, Vietnamese or Thai, then you might be able to wrap your head around this stuff quickly. If not, then you may find yourself struggling.
Help is available through this overview of the tones from Shanghai International Studies University’s three-week course on pronunciation and tone. For a sample, you might check out this open step on bargaining.
How long does it take to learn Chinese?
In our blogs on the French and Spanish languages, we got a rough measure of the difficulty level by looking at the US Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) ratings. Those languages were placed in category I – which is the easiest.
Both Cantonese and Mandarin sit at the other end of the spectrum, in Category IV. They’re considered by the FSI as ‘super-hard’ languages, which are ‘exceptionally difficult’ for English speakers. According to the organisation, you might expect to spend 2,200 class hours developing your skills before you can achieve true fluency. Which is around four times as long as the category I languages.
It’s worth noting, however, that every student is different. You might find that you’re able to take in the language more quickly than other students. On the other hand, you might find that you end up taking significantly longer.
What matters, if you’re choosing a new language to learn, is that Chinese is at the tricky end of the spectrum. One approach that can make things easier for new speakers is pinyin – which is a system for sounding out the phonemes.
This is the approach taken by ChinesePlus’s courses in contemporary Chinese. The first of these deals with basic Chinese expressions, characters and grammar; the second provides a little more cultural context; the third deals with the various regional dialects you’ll find across China.
Start learning Chinese today
As second languages go, Mandarin Chinese can be challenging for English speakers – especially those who don’t have any experience with other, related languages. As we’ve seen, however, it’s a language that’s sure to be hugely important in the coming decades, both economically and culturally.
A strong grasp of the Chinese language is something that will benefit you both personally and professionally. If you want to develop such an understanding, there’s no better place than FutureLearn!