08 September 2011

In recent months the desire to learn Mandarin has become more of a need than a want. There are simply too many reasons why learning it is important. For me there are both personal and professional reasons why being able to speak Mandarin would be of great benefit.

For me personally, my wife’s family live in mainland China and so they all speak fluent Mandarin. Unfortunately (for me at least) they don’t all speak English. Those that do are more academic speakers; they have the knowledge but simply don’t have the exposure to English to get really good at it. Give them a year in the UK or the US and they will be speaking awesome English, but for now conversation can be a bit tricky at times.

My mother in law doesn’t speak English although I have a nasty suspicion that she knows more English than I know Chinese which is somewhat embarrassing. She speaks numerous dialects fluently so I have a wide range of choice for what to learn, but Mandarin would do perfectly.

My son is also being exposed to several languages. Currently he experiences English, Cantonese, Mandarin and HangZhou dialect on a daily basis. Even though he’s not yet two he is doing really well and putting me to shame. He will have full command of at least four languages and I can barely manage the one…

Cantonese would be useful to me as well because after all I do live in Hong Kong. However I can manage in Hong Kong with just English and have done so for the past three years. I suspect this is partly why my Cantonese hasn’t improved as I simply do not need it for anything. I’ve noticed that loads of students at PolyU from the mainland don’t speak any Cantonese but survive perfectly well with Mandarin and English.

From a professional point of view, I can see many great reasons for learning Mandarin. The Chinese financial markets are going to be staggering as and when they become available and my skill set would put me in a good position to get my hands dirty. Except of course I can’t speak the language.

I know it has been argued that if you have the skills, the language issue doesn’t matter. English is the second language of the world and it should be possible to get by. Possible yes but this is far from ideal and besides I wouldn’t want to live in a place where I had no means of outside communication.

The second reason is that I would really like to do more research with mainland researchers, universities and students. Not all universities teach or research in English and I would be missing out a huge amount if I can’t join in with conversations. I appreciate that scientific discussion of even a basic level pretty much demands fluency, but even being able to have basic conversations would greatly enhance the situation.

Unfortunately I haven’t got too far with this yet. I seem to be having trouble getting the words into my head and then keeping them there. I read a really interesting article by Benny Lewis called Just 2 weeks learning Esperanto can get you months ahead in your target language. This was really interesting and it reminded of an article I’d read some time ago about a similar subject.

The idea was that for people who only know one language, it’s really hard to get their head around a second language. All those difficult new words and grammar structures just feel alien and perhaps the mind feels it’s losing some of itself in the process. After all, if you only speak one language, it wouldn’t be surprising to identify the “voice in your head” as the real you. I suspect that for a speaker of two or more languages, the language just becomes a form of expression separate from identity.

The theory is that because Esperanto is so easy to learn, it can sneak under your mind’s radar. If you can speak Esperanto, even a little bit, you’ve broken the “one language” barrier that you were having trouble crossing. Once you have proven to yourself that you can learn another language without losing yourself in the process (or at least that it’s possible for you to do it), then the spell should be broken and learning a third language should be much simpler.

So, my cunning plan is to spend a couple of months working on Esperanto. I’m going to put a decent amount of effort into it, but I think it will take more than a passing familiarity to convince me that it’s doable. We shall see I guess!

Learning mandarin is important to me because it would greatly benefit both my personal and professional life. I feel that I’m missing out on a lot and that this would go some way to restoring the balance. Although I have some other ideas about language learning, I figured I would give this one a go. I  will post back and let you know how it goes!

Ĝis revido!

blog comments powered by Disqus