The cover of the June 26, 2006 issue of the Asian edition of Time Magazine reads, “Get Ahead! Learn Mandarin!” The feature article narrates the tale of three Japanese businessmen who have given up nights at their favorite drinking spot for evening Mandarin classes. When asked why they’ve decided to study Mandarin, one of the salarymen vaguely replies, “We sort of unanimously agreed that Chinese would be a useful skill to acquire.” This sentiment mirrors a widely held view among up-and-comers in South Korea, Japan, and the West—the next twenty to thirty years belongs to China, and those who master Mandarin will be well positioned to participate in the Chinese economic juggernaut. If you’re thinking along the same lines, there are a few questions you need to consider.
First, when will you be able to move to Taiwan or China? Or, if you already live in Taiwan or China, when will you be able to quit your job so that you can spend most of your time learning Mandarin? According to the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, Mandarin is one of the five most difficult languages in the world for native English speakers to learn.¹ The Institute quotes 2,200 hours as the minimum number of class hours required for attaining fluency in Mandarin.² By that calculation, if you attend classes 10 hours a week, you’ll be fluent in four and a half years. Of course, the idea of learning Mandarin solely by taking classes is a pipe dream. You might be able to delay moving to Taiwan or China for a year, taking classes in your home country first, but you won’t make much progress. And after the first year, you’ll quickly reach the point of diminishing returns. Learning Mandarin in a classroom outside of Taiwan or China is about as efficient as learning to sail in a helicopter.
Second, are you a gifted mimic? Can you imitate, with precision, the voices and accents of your friends and co-workers? If you don’t have the voice control to mimic very foreign sounds with great accuracy, plan on always sounding like a foreigner when you speak Mandarin. Most people who learn Mandarin discover to their frustration that their mouths just won’t work that way, and they end up sounding like a foreigner speaking bad English on a television sitcom—more laughable than funny. The effort involved in crisply spouting off mouthfuls of Mandarin with accurate tones typically results in serious oral cramping. Many foreign speakers of Mandarin end up pronouncing entire sentences in the elongated first tone, ending abruptly with an overly loud fourth tone, intoning sentences that sound like song versus sung by a demented member of the Vienna Boy’s Choir. Fluency in Mandarin isn’t defined by having perfectly accented vocal tones, but if you do achieve a level of fluency that allows you to converse freely, you probably won’t sound much like a Chinese person.
Third, what’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever done that you didn’t really have to do? Run a marathon? Learn to use CAD to design a home? Rebuild a car engine? Well, compared to learning to speak and read Mandarin (forget about writing—at best, you’ll learn to type in Mandarin using a phonemic alphabet called Bopomofo or some other type of shorthand), it was a cakewalk. To become fluent in Mandarin in under two years, you’ll need iron discipline, endless perseverance, and a high resistance to tension headaches. During the first year I studied Mandarin in Taiwan, I ended each day in a state of mental exhaustion. It was like swimming in a powerful, four-foot deep whirlpool—I never drowned, but I never felt in control either.
People who come to Taiwan and China as missionaries, language students, or diplomats are either required to learn Mandarin or want to learn Mandarin. Then there are those who come as executives, as specialists, or to teach English. When they are fresh off the boat, most of them have grand dreams of mastering Mandarin in between meetings or classes. Time passes and you meet one of them in a pub one night. After a few beers, the story is usually the same, “I’ve been here for two years and haven’t really learned Mandarin yet,” as if not learning Mandarin is something to be ashamed of.
The truth is, if you’re in Taiwan or China as a teacher, a businessperson on an expatriate package, or a specialist, there no need to learn Mandarin beyond the few simple phrases that will get you from office to home in a taxi or help you figure out how much a vendor wants you to pay for something. Rare is the China-based expatriate who has the wisdom to recognize this and say: “I’m not going to learn Mandarin. I can’t take the time away from work to learn it well, and frankly, I don’t see the need to learn it.” Bravo to these sensible souls.
Having said that, I’ll offer some advice to those who are sitting on the fence, advice based on more than twenty years of studying and teaching Mandarin. If you think you’d like to learn Mandarin, but you’re not sure if you’ve got the discipline, the free time, and an adequate amount of headache medicine to get the job done, give learning Mandarin a three month trial period. Sign up for Mandarin classes; make time in your schedule to study. Work hard for ninety days and then give the whole project an honest assessment. If you don’t enjoy learning Mandarin, or feel that it isn’t worth the struggle, then give it up and proudly accept your status as a non-speaker of Mandarin. Go and learn Spanish—after six months of classes and a two-month sabbatical in Mexico you’ll be fluent. But don’t feel guilty about the fact that you don’t speak Mandarin. How many people do you know who can free climb up an inverted cliff face? Well, about the same number of Westerners can speak Mandarin with a high level of fluency.
¹Austin Ramzy, “Get Ahead, Learn Mandarin,” Time Asia Edition, June 26, 2006, page 22
This article first appeared in Taiwanease magazine in October 2006