July 12th, 2012
03:51 AM GMT
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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