July 12th, 2012
03:51 AM GMT
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Hong Kong (CNN) – With China now the world’s second largest economy and increasing its influence all the time, it’s no surprise that Mandarin is becoming the language to master.

Just look at the case of the American lawyer who left his job, upped sticks and moved his family to Western China to study the language, the recent launch of the New York Times’ Chinese language site, or even Bloomberg’s ranking of Confucius’ tongue as top business language, excluding English – they all point to the importance of communicating with this economic superpower on its terms.

But the reality is speaking Chinese is tough going. It’s very hard to be understood, even after putting in hundreds of hours learning it.

"When you go to different parts of China, though people are all speaking Mandarin, their vocabulary, their use of the language, could also be different from what you learned," said Dr. Meng Sue, from the University of Hong Kong’s School of Chinese.

From a practical point of view, just getting started may be tedious.

“I think that if you want to achieve a very basic level it takes around 50 hours,” said Helen Cheung, Program Manager at Executive Communications Educational Centre.

Cheung’s company runs Executive Mandarin, one of the most recognizable language outfits in Hong Kong. She manages 60 teachers who mostly educate businessmen in this territory. She says her students will be able to make a reservation or order a meal after six months.

Bit for many just starting to grapple with this tonal language, where “mai” may mean buy or sell depending on how it’s pronounced, life is tough.

“It’s so different from what we know, that it’s impossible to fit vocabulary in your head,” Mandarin student Emmanuelle Debhuren told CNN. “Once you learn a word, two days later you don’t remember it any more. Everything has to be memorized a thousand times and that’s why it’s more difficult.”

French-born Debhuren spoke with CNN in perfect Spanish, following a short conversation in English.

The U.S. State Department estimates that to achieve proficiency in Chinese, 88 weeks of work are needed, half of that time will be required for Russian, while 24 weeks is needed to learn Spanish or French.

Nevertheless, Mandarin is a very rewarding language to speak, affording foreign speakers a huge amount of respect - and maybe even business opportunities.

But to avoid frustration, this language shouldn’t be studied lightly. Before skimming through the first book, careful planning is required.

“Set your goals clearly,” Meng advised.

After deciding whether a basic survival course is enough, or higher native-speaker level is necessary, Meng suggested an incremental approach: first speaking and later moving towards character acquisition.

“It’s not the most difficult language to learn, if you start with a good beginning you can make great progress very quickly,” she added.

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soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. David Dai

    I am living in China.Mandarin is not so difficult to learn, just like we Chinese study english, we also need to overcome the barrier of culture and ideology between west and east. I have enough experience to teach foreighers and master it well . Because, I learn english by myself several years. the key is how to learn and how to cultivate the interest....... welcome to add my skype" Biolifts" or MSN " biolifts@hotmail.com", I will teach you for free based on the friendship of China and US in my heart!

    July 12, 2012 at 5:20 am |
  2. Pablo

    I am learning Mandarin in Wuhan, center of China, is REALLY hard!!! but worth.... you can feel the progress.

    July 12, 2012 at 5:21 am |
  3. David Dai

    I am living in China.Mandarin is not so difficult to learn, just like we Chinese study english, we also need to overcome the barrier of culture and ideology between west and east. I have enough experience to teach foreighers and master it well . Because, I learn english by myself several years. the key is how to learn and how to cultivate the interest....... welcome to add my skype" Biolifts" or MSN " biolifts"a"hotmail.com", I will teach you for free based on the friendship of China and US in my heart!

    July 12, 2012 at 5:24 am |
  4. James

    Well that figures. Totally an opinion by CNN Espanol.

    July 12, 2012 at 5:25 am |
  5. Tom

    One of the reasons I moved to China seven years ago was to gain exposure to the people and culture and maybe also to pick up a tiny bit of the language. I had heard about how difficult Mandarin was and I purposely hadn't signed-up for a language program because I have never been good at languages – even French or German, which are relatively easy for English-speakers.

    To my surprise I (and several other foreigners with me) found that Mandarin was actually a whole lot easier than people kept making it out to be. Six months before you can order a meal in a restaurant??? Really? That school should be ashamed of itself.

    The biggest challenge I found was with native Mandarin 'teachers'. Local shopkeepers, taxi drivers and bar tenders will just flat out chat to you in Chinese and you either sink or swim, but local teachers keep on telling you that "Mandarin is too difficult for foreigners" and they insist on engaging with you predominantly in English.

    One problem is the way that Chinese is taught in China. It's so different from the way English is taught as a second language and there still is no really effective, wide-spread Chinese equivalent of TESOL or CELTA. Teaching Chinese to foreigners is currently a patch-work of inconsistent ideas and approaches that still draws heavily on the rote learning style that Chinese children have to endure at school.

    Some schools are doing better, but each is more or less left to develop its own signature teaching style. The Mormon church actually has a great program. I met a couple of Mormon missionaries in Hong Kong who were speaking Mandarin, trying to recruit people on the streets of Wanchai. They'd had three months of training in Utah and then were shipped out to Hong Kong. They admitted people couldn't really understand them at first, but they just kept on going out, kept on trying and pretty soon were seriously impressively fluent. I'd love to know how they were trained!

    Anyhoo, long story short : Mandarin isn't THAT difficult. An immersive environment obviously helps, but if you have an interest then I'd say "give it a try!".

    July 12, 2012 at 5:29 am |
  6. Ken Spud

    This language has many aspects which make it difficult, just ask the hundreds of millions who don't speak it, mostly its leaders. Every place I go, I am confronted with a new dialect. When my wife and I get in a cab in Wuhan she immediately begins speaking the local dialect which I don't speak or want to speak. People hold dinners in my honor and speak a language which I don't understand. I sometimes respond in Cantonese which I also speak, and they are shocked into submission. It is a language which is very dependant upon the "tone" of the word, and it is a language without an alphabet. You could be reading the news thinking it is a story about two dogs mating in the park when in fact it is a series of compound acronyms which you are assumed to know.
    Is is a major language, yes. Will it become a major business tool, no! But it is colorful.
    Why they do not use the pinyin system effectively as they do in street signs, when they are using a "foreign term" escapes me. I can't take it anymore. I am going home to learn Spanish from my grandchildren

    July 12, 2012 at 5:29 am |
  7. Richard Zhang

    The best way to be familiar in Chinese is to learn the basics in a Chinese School then go to China. I am American born Chinese, my parents are Chinese, and they came here to have a better life. Make friends with a Chinese person. Listen to their conversation and ask for translation. Its not hard, really. If you study good, and talk a lot, Chinese will be not too hard.

    July 12, 2012 at 5:40 am |
  8. Saoirse

    You guys are misunderstanding the article. They are talking about profeciency. The standards for profeciency at the state department are higher then just being able to order food at a restaurant. They are talking about being able to function within a role in their department, which requires you to be able to speak more complex words dealing with more complex topics. Most foreigners give up when it comes to talking about economics, politics or science. Yes they can function at a basic conversational level but very few achieve true native level unless the start at an early age. That is a fact. There are some exceptions but that is because the full immersion in the culture. That is the best way to learn any language of course. But if you are talking about language training.....it is something quite different.

    July 12, 2012 at 6:20 am |
  9. Saoirse

    BTW if you happen to be a Hua Ren.....which is a Chinese person born abroad....of course it is easy for you to learn the language.....because you can talk to you parents (maybe) in putonghau. There is also a saying that Hua Ren your brain is already hard wired to learn the language. Not sure if it is true....but many people have said that.

    July 12, 2012 at 6:22 am |
  10. Dason

    "the recent launch of the New York Times’ Chinese language site, or even Bloomberg’s ranking of Confucius’ tongue as top business language", but not CNN.

    July 12, 2012 at 6:46 am |
  11. Basman

    "There is also a saying that Hua Ren your brain is already hard wired to learn the language. Not sure if it is true....but many people have said that."

    no this is completely wrong, there is no such thing as being hard wired for a particular language.

    zai jian woda panyo

    July 12, 2012 at 6:52 am |
  12. Mozilla

    The most important thing living in china is to adjust your body's immunity to adapt the toxic foods and air rather than speaking Mandarin.

    July 12, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  13. David

    chinglish...

    July 12, 2012 at 7:14 am |
  14. canicular

    Being proficient in Chinese in 88 weeks is an impossible mission unless you live in China or you have special talence or gift in learning language

    July 12, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  15. Sunandan

    @Mozilla
    I was scrolling down the comments list and wondering why there are no negative comments.That is till i found your comment.
    By the way, i am actually in China(Beijing.I usually comment upon things i have personally observed instead of relying on others) and the toxic food and air seems just fine to me.

    July 12, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  16. china

    Chinese is not difficult.
    The grammar is almost free.
    Difficult is the writing and saying chinese words.
    Chinese is the Imagelanguage and not character language.
    Almost 700 words to conquer to communicate.
    but after this you are free in china.
    you do not have to worry about grammar.

    Chinese is just like English.
    Simple grammer, difficult words.
    Not like other european languages.

    July 12, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  17. china

    There are many dialects in China.
    but only in the south.
    in the north 95% chinese can only say mandarin.

    Important dialects are Shanghai dialect in Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu
    Contonese in Hongkong, Guangdong
    Sichuan dialect in Sichuan, Chongqing
    all southern provinces.
    The northern people can only understand 70% of them.

    But 100% of chinese can say mandarin.

    If you can say mandarin, you can go everywhere in china.

    July 12, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  18. Tang Aihua

    Presently in China for 10 years...it has been a monumental struggle to learn 'putonghua' ...with starts and crashes along the way to learn enough to get by with my basic needs, buying, directons, ordering in restaurants (gotta have picutres), traveling and havng basic, get-to-know-you conversations. The way to peoples hearts and friendship is to try...their faces suddenly light up. Spanish and French were much easier, whereas Mandarin structure is almost reverse to English and Latin lanuages. The structure confuses the English speaker trying to learn by themselves. Learning to read the written script is a completely different experience, incomprehensible at first, until you begin to see the patterns and how they repeat themselves to form "words" and expessions one sees everywhere that make little or non sense t first. I a told that one who masters this language can open world to expressing themsleves unlike any other language. Much has come down through the ages, here in China, by writers and poets that is not translateable as we in the West lack this depth of expression. Now where did I put my dictionary?

    July 12, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  19. arthur uzo

    The new fronteir

    July 12, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  20. L. L

    I have lived in Yunnan the last 6 years and Mandarin is neither hard nor easy. If you really work at it you can communicate quite effectively in about 2 years. But if you really want to get deep witht the language it can take 10-20 years. The problem is that most foreigners living in China only learn to speak. Most of them do not read newspaper and chinese literature, or watch a lot of local T.V. And as a result, they just don't have enough historical and cultural background to engage in deep conversation. One thing about dialect, in Yunnan most people speak a variant of Mandarin dialect which is nearly impossible to understand at first. Same thing with Sichuan and many other places. Once you get beyond the superficial of the language, you will realize that chinese language is incredibly rich, rooted in history and legends. There are literally thousands of proverbs made up of 4 chinese characters. Each has its own historical root and story behind it. To say all chinese can speak mandarin is incorrect. There are 50 some minority and many of whom can only speak their own language.

    July 12, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  21. china

    The minorities can say Mandarin all because they were taught so.
    In Chinese schools the Mandarins are taught as National official language.
    99% of chinese have attended Chinese schools.
    Some(not 50 or more) chinese minorities have own dialects or languages, but since 95% of chinese are Han-Chinese.
    you do not have many chances to communicate with such minorities.

    If You travel to tibet to support Tibetan independence.
    Some old tibetans can not say Chinese.
    All Chinese youth, tibetan youth can say Mandarin if they ever attend chinese schools.

    July 12, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  22. chinese american

    chinese and english are the two easiest languages to learn on this planet...period!

    July 12, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  23. medhat

    Maintenance of mobile learning
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    July 12, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  24. Lobelia

    I studied Russian, and more recently spent a couple of semesters trying my hand (or tongue) at learning Mandarin Chinese. I agree with the State Department's estimate cited in this article: Mandarin takes about twice as much time to become proficient at as Russian. Even with Russian, you can relate some aspects of the language to concepts that you know from English (or French or Spanish or other Western languages you might have studied). But everything about Chinese has to be learned from scratch, not to mention the entire concept of characters rather than an alphabet. You can't gain a toehold from your knowledge of other languages, except in the most abstract sense.

    July 12, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
  25. Victor

    If you ever try to translate from English to Chinese or vice versa, then you would fully appreciate the differences between these languages: languages are carriers of cultures. There are huge differences between the East and the West. Therefore, it is quite difficult for a westerner to learn Chinese and vice versa except when you try to learn them (both) as a kid. Once you grow up and then start to learn the other one (called second language acquistion), it would become a lengthy process (unless your partner speaks that language!))

    July 17, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
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    July 20, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
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