With about one billion native speakers, Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. It's also notoriously hard to learn. Is it worth your time? Read on to find out.
Go back several thousand years and imagine a vast country divided into many isolated regions. Here, most people would spend their entire lives within just a few miles from their place of birth. Clearly, this type of environment is bound to produce a number of mutually unintelligible languages and dialects. The importance of Mandarin Chinese is that, along with the Chinese writing system, it helped unite the country and make it a major player throughout human history.
Is it worth spending your time studying Mandarin? Many smart people think so. For example, the legendary investor Jim Rogers says: "The single best advice I can give you of any kind is to learn Mandarin."
Mandarin Chinese has a reputation of being difficult to learn. This is not surprising since historically it developed independently from the western languages. Yet, in many respects, Mandarin may be easier for an English speaker than much closely related languages, such as French or Spanish.
Here are some facts about Mandarin Chinese that you may find useful in deciding whether learning this fascinating language is for you:
- The word "mandarin" was used to describe officials in imperial China. Anyone who wanted to work for the government needed to know it.
- Besides mainland China, Mandarin is widely spoken in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and countless Chinatowns around the world.
- Many Chinese people living in the US are native Cantonese speakers. However, if you look at the big picture, Cantonese is used by only a small percentage of people in China. Besides, any educated Chinese person can communicate in Mandarin. Therefore, if you're interested in studying Chinese, Mandarin should be your first choice.
- The Chinese language is written with symbols known as Chinese characters. Unlike most western writing systems, the Chinese writing system is not phonetic. Essentially, each character represents a concept, not a sound. So, while a Chinese person learning to read English needs to memorize only 26 letters, an English-speaking student of Chinese will spend years memorizing thousands and thousands of Chinese characters.
- The good news is that most Chinese characters are assembled using a couple of hundred repeating elements called "radicals." Learning the radicals greatly simplifies the memorization of Chinese characters.
- As it is often the case with learning languages, it makes sense to be smart about what you learn first. The most frequently occurring characters number only 200-300, but comprise over 50% of general, non-technical text. So, learning these frequently-occurring characters first will provide the highest payoff.
- Mandarin is a tonal language. While western speakers use tonal variations in their speech to express mood or emotion, Mandarin Chinese speakers use tones to completely change meaning of the words they say. Fortunately, Mandarin Chinese uses "only" four tones, which is only half of what Cantonese uses.
More good news:
- No verb conjugations. An irregular Spanish verb can have dozens of forms you would need to memorize. By learning one form of a Mandarin verb you learn them all!
- Nouns usually have no gender or plurality, so there's less to memorize and less chances to make embarrassing mistakes.
- If you can read Mandarin, you can read text written by a speaker of any other variation of Chinese. This is one of the benefits of the Chinese writing system, which, again, is not phonetic.
So, is Mandarin Chinese for you? If you say yes, go ahead and start learning the basics with our games and quizzes. If you say no, try them anyway!
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