“Ni Hao! Xie Xie!”
The Chinese words for “hello” and “thank you” are well-known and widely spoken all over the world – not just by Chinese people, but by learners from all kinds of backgrounds. It is estimated that 178 million people across the globe are currently learning Mandarin, making it one of the most popular foreign language choices of all (after English and Arabic, with 430 and 236 million respectively).
It’s certainly admirable that so many people are giving it a try. It goes without saying that Mandarin Chinese is insanely complicated and hard to master, given its complex writing system and tonal phonetic
rules. It is much easier for English speakers to have a decent grasp of “Romance” languages, such as Spanish and French; Chinese, by comparison, requires you to know thousands of characters to be able to read, and even a tiny mispronunciation of a single tone can change the whole meaning of a sentence.
Working as a part-time Chinese teacher in a local school in Melbourne, Australia, I cannot help but constantly wonder why so many people pick arguably the hardest language in the world. There are more than 200,000 Mandarin speakers in this country, many of whom are non-native learners twisting their tongues and brains around almost torturous concepts of tone, grammar and characters. I interviewed some of my own students to find out what their motivations were – and what they think drives the popularity of Mandarin down under.
WINNING IMPORTANT CONTRACTS
Benjamin Robinson is an Australian wine exporter; he has been learning Mandarin for 2 years.
“With China’s ascendency
in the global economy, it means anyone doing export business is likely to encounter a Mandarin speaker”, Ben observes. The booming Chinese economy has also caused a surge in wine consumption. Mr. Robinson said China is at the forefront
of every smart winery’s and wine-seller’s mind. He reckons that even a few courtesy words of Mandarin might land you a more lucrative
UNDERSTANDING THE CULTURE (AND THE IN-LAWS!)
Jonathan Nichols is learning Mandarin for a very different reason. Happily married to his Chinese wife, he told me that only by learning her language can he truly understand the Chinese way of living. Jonathan is not the only one who is learning for the in-laws: Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has been doing something similar since marrying Priscilla Chan. He recently admitted that studying Mandarin not only helps him to understand the culture, but gives him the key to the next global superpower.
PREPARING FOR TOMORROW
As Australia is embracing the “Asian Century” – an incentive by former PM Julia Gillard to provide access to major Asian languages in schools – more students, even at prep
level, are being introduced to the rich language of China in their classrooms. I interviewed Catharine Andrews, a Year 11 student who has been learning the language since the start of this year. When asked why she wanted to take up Mandarin along with all her other demanding subjects in the penultimate year of high school – quite a commitment! – she replied that Mandarin would open more doors for her, and that it stands out as her extra-curriculum on the resume.
Other Mandarin students also revealed their intentions to work or travel in China. There was one constant amongst all of them: they believed that learning a foreign language, especially a very challenging one like Mandarin, would allow them to take advantage of what the other side of the world has to offer. Such a healthy attitude being shown by a cross-section of Australian society can only be a positive thing.