Commentary

Approaching Mandarin

R.Haltmaier/The Phillipian

Two weeks ago, the article “Will You Master Mandarin? Probably Not.” by Andy Zeng caught my eye. The main point made in the article was that Mandarin, given its tonal properties and logographic organization, is extremely difficult to master; therefore the decision to learn Mandarin as a second language should be reconsidered. Like the author, I am also a native speaker of Mandarin, and I completely agree that Mandarin is quite challenging for anyone to learn. However, I still believe there are several reasons for English speakers to learn Mandarin.

The root of my disagreement with Zeng’s article is the connection he makes with the ease of learning a language and the reasons for learning it. Essentially, he argues against students learning Mandarin because of its difficulty, which is a view I oppose. Zeng also states that Mandarin is especially hard for English-speakers due to its major differences, as opposed to Spanish or French, which use almost the same alphabet. Sometimes, however, learning another set of rules, grammar, and different meanings for similar-looking words may be more confusing than learning a drastically-different language altogether. For example, the French word “blesser” means “to hurt,” and the word has no correlation to the English word “bless,” yet I tend to confuse the two when speaking French, due to their similarity. On the other hand, learning “벧,” the Chinese word for “to hurt,” does not interfere with previously known words because it is a completely new symbol.

Additionally, Zeng suggests that learning Mandarin is pointless due to the accuracy of Google Translate. He uses an example of a song to argue that Google Translate is remarkably accurate. I disagree with this, because the meaning of a song, a poem, or any condensed literature goes far beyond the literal text. An electronic program will never be the same as my middle school Chinese teacher spending an hour explaining word usage, implications, and nuances in a poem. Even if Google Translate was perfectly accurate, it could not replace human minds and interaction. If we should not learn other languages because of Google Translate, why are we learning math when it could easily be done on computers?

Learning a language is so much more than grammar proficiency. Along with its functional purposes, the process of learning a foreign language can help people obtain new perspective and better understand another culture. With every world language comes knowledge about the people, the food, and the traditions associated with it. Before learning French, I had no idea how many different cheeses there were, that the word for 91 is literally “40-twenties-and-11.” This new perspective is especially pertinent to the diverse student body we have at Andover. Many of us speak languages other than English. To a certain extent, learning another language helps students understand one another.

Don’t hesitate to take Mandarin, or any other language. It might be challenging at times, but it will be beneficial in the long run, not only in terms of language proficiency, but also cultural awareness, learning skills, and more. I highly recommend that English speakers attempt to pick up Mandarin, no matter their level of experience. The decision to choose a language comes down to more than whether or not one has the capability to master it. In fact, learning should never be about ease but about challenging oneself, and if Mandarin is how someone chooses to challenge themselves, they should go for it.


Skylar Xu is a two-year Lower from Beijing, China.

Nov 3, 2017