When we talk about studying Chinese what we mean by that, in 2010, is really studying Mandarin, also known as standard Mandarin. Compared to Cantonese, which is the second most spoken out of around 50 languages in contemporary China, Mandarin is far larger. Cantonese is pretty much confined to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Mandarin on the other hand is also spoken in both these areas, and the entirety of the rest of the country. This did not come about as an accident. 100 years ago there were more languages and Standard Mandarin was not known as standard. The Mandarin of today is an amalgamation of different dialects but is mostly made up of the old Beijing one. The reason that it is so common today is that it has been artificially promoted by the central government for obvious reasons: one modern nation needs one common mode of communication.
When we talk about Mandarin language studies people often say that they are rather tricky. They are not a walk in the park, but it is my sincere belief that people make it out to be a much more difficult task than it is in reality. The thing we need to remember is that Mandarin is very different from languages that have been derived from Latin or the Germanic branch of European languages. But once those differences have been deal with, learning the rest of the language is much less tricky than it would seem when you are just setting out on that particular journey. These initial bumps in the road can be categorized into two distinct groups; the difficulties of writing Chinese Mandarin and the difficulties of speaking Chinese Mandarin. I write difficulties but in reality it is less about difficulty and more about differences.
The first of these two categories, written Chinese, is mostly hard because there is no alphabet. Instead you need to memorize a great deal of pictures, aka characters. The key to success in this matter lies in not thinking of them as pictures when you try to commit them to memory but rather thinking of them in terms of their underlying structure. The two golden nuggets of information that you need to become familiar with is the building blocks that make up the vast majority of characters, called radical, and the way that these radicals are written, the stroke order. Once you have these two concepts firmly logged in your head you will begin to see the characters as a process of writing and not as a finished product. The picture is complicated but the way that it is formed is as easy as pie. It is a bit like riding a bike really – once you get up and going you will cover a lot of ground very quickly and you will never loose that initial effort you put in while learning the first couple of hundred or so the right way.
The second of the categories, spoken Chinese Mandarin, is mostly different in terms of pronunciation. The grammar really is not that hard. Chinese Mandarin pronunciation, however, is. It is hard because as we know Mandarin lacks an alphabet. Instead of being made up of letters that make a sound when put together we have pictures which give little or no indication regarding how the words sound when spoken. To muddle things up even more the Mandarin language is not only dependent on syllables, it also involves modulation of the pitch. This is what is more commonly known as tones, and it makes Mandarin a tonal language.
However, both the difficulties with getting to grips with Characters and their radicals and stroke order, and the trick to wrapping your tongue around tonal modulation while speaking, can easily be dealt with in a small class size. Learning Mandarin without the individual attention of a teacher is very hard, but once you have someone to correct your pronunciation and show you what you are doing wrong when writing, you are on the home stretch, speeding ahead to proficiency in the language that holds the key to the greatest paradigm shift of our century – the rise of China as economic and political super power.