Commentary

Will You Master Mandarin? Probably Not.

Sun Yat-sen, founding father of the People’s Republic of China, once said, “one shall never teach one’s fellow foreigners one’s language.” Historians may argue that the leader said no such thing, but I digress. Anyways, the year before I emigrated from China, I attempted to teach one of my American friends Chinese. His father worked for the embassy in China, and he had lived there for a good quarter of his life, though he barely knew words like “ni hao” and “zai jian.” He was your average prepubescent 11-year-old, which meant that he was keenly interested in, well, profanity. Since we had spent the last thirty minutes trying to teach him random vocabulary in pinyin, the romanization system for Chinese characters, I figured it wasn’t a bad idea to teach him something more interesting.

I decided to teach my friend the phrase 你(ni)他(ta)妈(ma)的(de), which roughly translates to the F-bomb. Diligently, he attempted several times to pronounce the word before slumping back into his chair, looking absent-mindedly out the window of Sanlitun at the four-floor Adidas megastore and sipping his boba milk tea. Suddenly, as if some puzzle snapped together in his mind, he exclaimed, “I got it now! It sounds just like tomato! You’re basically saying ‘neat tomato!’”

I realized at that moment that “Neat tomato” was likely going to be the extent of this kid’s Mandarin vocabulary. This experience, however, got me thinking. According to “Forbes,” China’s contribution to the global GDP “will surpass that of the US… by 2018”. This demonstrates China’s growth as a global superpower. As the nation’s economic influence increases, so does its cultural influence: the language is becoming more prevalent internationally. The amount of foreigners trying to learn Mandarin is growing exponentially. “Huffington Post” claims, “There are at least 50 Chinese-language immersion programs at U.S. schools for children in grades 12 and below, compared to about a dozen [in 2005].”

As a native speaker, I began to ponder whether all these Mandarin programs are really worthy of everyone’s time. Sure, learning Chinese can raise foreigners’ appreciation for Chinese culture and can increase the chances of American businesses successfully closing partnerships with Chinese companies; however, despite the advantages the language may offer, it is not all that well and good for America’s new generation to be diving knee deep into Chinese.

Mandarin is overwhelmingly intricate and nuanced, especially considering the fact that many secondary learners are young students. Even learners who have spent years toiling may still only possess a basic grasp. One of the reasons for this is that the writing system for Mandarin consists of tens of thousands of hanzi (characters), rather than just the 26 symbols that English has.

Furthermore, Mandarin is difficult to speak correctly because it is a tonal language. Although it has only four tones compared to the nine of Cantonese, the concept of tones may be hard to grasp for native English speakers. For example, there is a notorious poem in China called “施氏食狮史” which describes the journey of the poet Shi eating lions. The catch, however, is this: if you read the title in Mandarin, you will say, “shi shi shi shi shi.” In fact, EVERY character in the entire poem sounds the same; all 92 of them are homophones of each other. And yet, the poem features an interesting and complete beginning, climax, and end (if you’re into eating exotic animals, anyway).

The Foreign Service Institute’s language difficulty ranking system places Chinese in the highest Category of V, which requires at least 2200 hours for an average learner to reach even general proficiency. Children will have to go through extreme pressure in an effort to learn Chinese. Mandarin is simply harder for foreigners to understand and to speak. The benefits may be there, but the costs — in terms of time and effort spent — are too high.

Lastly, Google Translate is becoming alarmingly accurate. When I tried using it to translate one of the most famous Chinese songs from the 20th century, 好(hao)汉(han)歌(ge) from “Outlaws of the Marsh,” I was impressed by the results. The first sentence translated to, “The river to the east ah, the stars see the North Star ah!” The translator was capable of distinguishing exclamatory words and interjections from other content. Apple’s iOS 11 Siri is not far behind; the new firmware is capable of translating languages in mere seconds simply through audible cues. Although I’m no Wall Street analyst, I believe that in the near future, real-time translations will become a perfected technological advancement. All in all, after spending 2200 hours learning a language, an electronic translator may still be better than you.

Foreigners, feel free to conquer Mandarin if you wish, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’ll be closing the next big deal with Alibaba or Tencent because you took  three years of Chinese school. You’re more likely subjecting yourself to hours and hours of work to no good end. Although all languages are equally valuable in

Oct 20, 2017