Americans Learning Mandarin

As I continue to debate if I might dip my toe in to learning a bit of Mandarin Chinese, I see many articles about Americans trying to learn Chinese.

Chinese bilingual schools, Chinese immersion programs, Asian Studies programs at universities, and moving to China for a year as a family to be surrounded by Chinese, all so their children can have the advantage of being able to speak Chinese by the time they graduate college.  With China’s rising global influence, these parents want their children to be able to communicate fluently with the country’s 1.3 billion people.

The often repeated caution is that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn for people whose native language is English.  Of course, the same is said of Korean, and my year of dabbling has at least made me believe learning Korean is possible for me.

A Wall Street Journal article stated:

“Mandarin is notoriously difficult to learn. The language is tonal, and fluency requires mastering thousands of characters. Mandarin competence takes 2,200 class hours, with half of that time spent in a country where it’s spoken, according to the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, whereas Spanish can be learned in 600 to 750 class hours.”

Massachusetts may boast 6% Asian population, but Berkshire county only has 1.4% Asian population.  In this small population, there is far more likelihood of finding a Chinese speaker than someone who speaks Korean, as I have discovered from years of searching.  If I choose to learn Mandarin, I have more of a chance of being able to use it.  I also open myself up to learning about China, which is a vast, diverse, and rapidly changing country.

On the other hand, learning Chinese is such a big project, it is hard to know where to start.  I am easing myself towards it by learning how to draw a few characters, ordering Tuttle Chinese Flashcards for Kids with audio, and buying a Chinese-English dictionary.

An Introductory Chinese language college course says:

Course objectives are for the student to develop simple, practical conversational skills and acquire basic proficiency in reading and writing in both the simplified and the traditional script at about the 500-character level. The relationship between language and culture and the sociolinguistically appropriate use of language will be stressed throughout.

I compare this to my year studying Korean.  I only reached about 300 words, and I still struggle to speak and write conversationally.  I am not done with learning Korean.  However, I have opened the door to learning to write Chinese characters as part of my Korean studies.  I remain peaking over the fence towards Chinese, but no where near the point of being ready to commit to studying the language.


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