Is it worth it to attempt to learn Chinese?
April 25, 2008 6:07 PM   Subscribe

What are your experiences in taking Chinese as a language in college? How difficult is it really and did you learn enough for it to be useful?

I am starting school relatively late in life (29 years old, business major). I took the equivalent of 5 years of French in middle school and high school. I have little memory of it, but would probably be starting from close to scratch. There is a requirement to take two years of a language, unless you can test out of taking one year, which it is so far back, I don't know if I would pass the test. And, I basically have very little interest in French now anyway. If I went to France I could get around, and that's all I would really need it for.

So, I am considering just taking two years of a new language and want it to be useful. I'm really interested in Chinese, for two reasons, 1) because I hope to do some extensive traveling at some point in China and 2) because I feel like it may at some point in time give me an edge in the business world. But, I don't want to take it if it just going to be especially hard compared to other languages I could take (say Spanish) and if I will end up having so little proficiency for it not to be useful.

I am interested in anyone's first hand experience on this or learning other Asian languages at a university.

P.S. I am one of those nerdy kinds of people who just enjoy learning new things.
posted by hazyspring to Education (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I took a few semesters of Japanese at the University of British Columbia and had a rather mixed experience. It was interesting and not mind-rendingly difficult, but certainly much more challenging than the German and Latin classes I had taken previously. One of the biggest challenges I had was learning all the kanji. You need to know about 2000 to be considered even basically fluent. You can fake it with hiragana in class, but for real writing, you've just go to know them.

At the time, I was living with some Japanese roommates who were in Vancouver studying English, so I helped them with their English and they helped me with my Japanese. Even then, traveling to Japan after about a year of coursework and studying with my roommates, I could carry out only the most rudimentary conversation and could read little. It was still enjoyable, but nowhere near functional.

Additionally (and this is just anecdotal), Chinese dialects are all tonal languages, which adds another level of difficulty above even Japanese. Especially if you've not planning on any immersive studying, it can be difficult to achieve speaking/hearing proficiency due to the tonal components. Combine that with needing to know thousands of characters for reading/writing proficiency, learning any flavour of Chinese is a significant undertaking.

In general, I'd say your experience is going to depends a lot on the quality of the department you'll be taking it from. UBC has one of the best Chinese language departments in the western world (and a ton of native speakers in the area) and that will be noticeable even in introductory level coursework. Some random small state college in the Midwest isn't going to be able to replicate that (not sure which of those your university is closer to).

But, I don't want to take it if it just going to be especially hard compared to other languages I could take (say Spanish) and if I will end up having so little proficiency for it not to be useful.

Chinese will be much harder than Spanish, especially if you've taken another Romance language (French) in the past. The State Department has a ranking of language difficulty for English speakers and highest level of difficulty is reserved exclusively for Asian languages and Arabic. So yea, it's much harder than Spanish.
posted by Nelsormensch at 6:54 PM on April 25, 2008

I took two and a half years of Chinese in school. It was a five credit course, in comparison to something simple topics like like physics or digital circuit design. It was a lot of work. I'm sure if I'd spent that time learning Spanish or French I'd be fluent, though. Especially given you've taken 5 years of French, it will likely come back more easily.

But, I really liked it. I took Spanish in Highschool and it never really captured my imagination the way learning Chinese did. I probably would have become more fluent if I'd studied harder.
posted by delmoi at 7:00 PM on April 25, 2008

Additionally (and this is just anecdotal), Chinese dialects are all tonal languages, which adds another level of difficulty above even Japanese

This is kinda wrong. I'm pretty sure that Chinese is easier to learn then Japanese. While Japanese is very complicated, Chinese grammar is actually pretty straightforward. Definitely simpler then English.

Mandarin Chinese has only four tones, and I never paid that much attention to them when I was learning, I never paid much attention to the tones and picked them up pretty much by 'osmosis'. When I read a word off the paper it would have the tone mark written, and most of the time I'd use the right tone when I said the word later on. You definitely do not need to know the tones for each word to understand each word, you'll be able to tell what word is appropriate based on context and sound alone.

(In fact, even with the tones Chinese has tons of homonyms).

Finally learning Hanzi (or 'kanji') is not as difficult when learning Chinese as it is with Japanese, because you only have those Characters, so you have to know them. At least, that was my experience, it wasn't very hard to learn the Characters at all.

What you probably don't realize is that each character isn't unique, they are composed of common sub-shapes, so learning the characters is kind of like learning to spell on a 2-d grid, rather then in a line.

Also, you'll only need to be able to recognize the character and know it's pronunciation in pin-yin in order to write on a computer, and pretty much any PC or Mac will actually let you type in Chinese in almost any modern application (including MS word, Firefox, etc)
posted by delmoi at 7:12 PM on April 25, 2008

(For what it's worth, Chinese and Japanese have little in common except their writing systems. They're members of different language families. They have very different grammars. They use different sets of sounds, and so pose different pronunciation challenges for English speakers.

Answering a question about learning Chinese with an anecdote about learning Japanese is like answering a question about learning English with an anecdote about learning Basque.)

posted by nebulawindphone at 7:18 PM on April 25, 2008

I took a year of chinese, and didn't work very hard, but did all right. It was awesome, first year Chinese was easier for me to learn than the basics of other languages I've studied due to its grammatical structure. You need a really good ear, though. After a year I could go tourist there, I think, and if it hadn't been my last year of college I'd have taken another and I think I would have felt confident getting lost in a hypothetical Chinese city where most of the people spoke with a bone-standard Beijing accent. A lot depends on your curriculum and professor, and whether there are cute MOTAS to practice with.
posted by thedaniel at 8:31 PM on April 25, 2008

Learning Chinese comes down to a lot of practice. You'll need to memorize characters and practice pronouncing them. There's really no other way to go about it except brute force. Sounds bad but if an alien were to come to Earth, I think Chinese would be the easiest language (that I know) to learn. It's largely because like delmoi said, the grammar is ridiculously simple. Once you figure it out, you'll start wishing other languages were more similar. Put it this way - you know how with Western languages, you continue learning grammar rules up through high school? Chinese stop studying conversational grammar in grade scale and just study characters to increase vocab.

I think it's going to come down to your study habits and diligence. If you're the type who really gets into learning languages, you practice and study a lot outside of class, it will be worthwhile. But if you're expecting to become fluent by just going to class and doing homework, it ain't gonna happen.

1) because I hope to do some extensive traveling at some point in China
Never hurts! 2 years should be fine for getting you around the country as long as you're not traveling to the really remote areas.

2) because I feel like it may at some point in time give me an edge in the business world.
I wouldn't count on language fluency helping you with this. It's not that the language is different, China works on completely unique business principles and style. It's something you can't learn from a book - you'd have to live and work there for some time to pick it up. China is training English speakers at an alarming rate, especially with the upcoming Olympics. In the real world, anyone you interface with would likely be quite proficient in English. That said, where your fluency does give you an edge is that you'll be more interested in what goes on in China and will be more likely to stay current.

I was born in Taiwan, lived there until I was 4, and speak fluently but can't read worth squat. I took 1 semester (1/2 yr) at UC Berkeley in a "for native speakers" class but didn't think the program was very good.
posted by junesix at 8:54 PM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Answering a question about learning Chinese with an anecdote about learning Japanese is like answering a question about learning English with an anecdote about learning Basque.

The only points I was trying to make the Chinese-Japanese anecdote were 1) they both have a non-Roman alphabet which poses challenges French/Spanish/etc. do not and 2) they're both very difficult (or at least time-consuming) for English speakers to learn compared to Romance/Germanic languages. But yes, they're otherwise unrelated. I'd give the same anecdote to someone asking about learning Arabic (perhaps with a clearer explanation though).

posted by Nelsormensch at 10:04 PM on April 25, 2008

Chinese has a pretty complicated grammar; it just seems simpler because instead of inflecting like Latin does (malus nom., malum acc., etc.) we use word order. There's also a tremendous array of idiomatic constructions which you must at least learn to recognize, because native speakers will use them freely. The tonal part can also be a big problem for non-native speakers. My first language was an atonal dialect of Chinese (Shanghainese) and my primary language now is English, so I still have trouble with the tones. Another sticking point for me is the retroflex consonants. They're transcribed `h' in hanyupinyin and mean to curl the tongue up so the underside faces the roof of your mouth. Even after the better part of a decade this feels profoundly unnatural and people report a noticeable pause as I shift my tongue up for these.

I tell you this not to dissuade you but to warn you what will come. If you want to do business or travel, Mandarin is very useful. Even 70% of China's population, all of whom want to buy things, is a large group, and then there's also the literature to consider.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:05 PM on April 25, 2008

if a) you "hope to do some extensive traveling at some point in China" and are looking for "an edge in the business world" and b) want to learn a language as difficult/different as chinese, i would strongly suggest doing a year of studies overseas in china as part of the process. this will both help the coursework you did really sink in, and give you loads of valuable insight into the culture which would probably prove very valuable in a business setting.

plus it'll probably be totally fun, no one regrets studying overseas!
posted by messiahwannabe at 10:34 PM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why don't you give it a test drive and see what you think?
posted by RavinDave at 10:43 PM on April 25, 2008

I studied Mandarin for a few years at uni and then in China/Taiwan... practical aspects aside, it's was a very good experience to learn a language so distinct from your own. Contrary to what people think, Chinese honestly isn't so hard. For one thing, there is no conjugation or inflection. So, no irregular verbs for example. Also, there are no difficult sounds or consonant clusters which may make other languages hard to articulate. Sure the tones can be tough, but they're learnable. Also, writing is hard - but, as with any language, speaking is more important so forget that for now.

I say go for it, especially if you are the nerdy person you describe. You'll definitely enjoy it plus it's fun to speak.
posted by mateuslee at 11:18 PM on April 25, 2008

I knew not a word of Chinese before beginning a four-year degree in the modern and classical language at SOAS (University of London). We had one year abroad in Beijing and I took a year out to stay and work in China after that before returning to complete the course. I too started in my mid-twenties. I was a ropey speaker on graduation but was already able to do some translation and went straight back to China to work in a remote area with a distinct dialect and successfully used what language abilities I had in day-to-day work. I've spent the greater part of the decade since here in the PRC and now translate for a living - I've got to a level where I've done academic monographs and literature for proper publishers. The degree is the only formal education in Chinese I've had.
posted by Abiezer at 12:25 AM on April 26, 2008

I agree with others that learning a language on its own isn't enough if you hope to really learn it well. I would combine language classes with cross-cultural communication, Asian business subjects, and perhaps even a little history.

This should also keep you motivated during the years when you think "why am I doing this?" :)

I think it is worth learning Chinese if you feel it will benefit you, whether for work or travel. I did Italian at university because it was easy, but it sure isn't useful now. I enjoy travelling in China and wish I'd chosen that or another Asian language instead.
posted by wingless_angel at 3:42 AM on April 26, 2008

Well ...

Here's the thing about Chinese: If you didn't grow up speaking it, you'll probably always sound funny to native speakers. I took a year of it in university, my parents are from Taiwan, and I can usually understand it, but I have a horrible accent (and as bad as my accent is, everybody who I've met who started learning Chinese later in life has a far worse one). This is because of the whole tonal thing -- if you grew up speaking English, you won't be listening for it (or place as much of an emphasis on it), which is why you get a lot of conversations with well meaning people which go something like:

ENGLISH SPEAKER: "Oh! How do you say your name in Chinese?"
CHINESE PERSON: *Chinese name with tones*
ENGLISH SPEAKER: *Chinese name without tones*?
CHINESE PERSON: No, *Chinese name with tones*
ENGLISH PERSON: *Chinese name without tones*?
CHINESE PERSON: *pause* "Sure, why not."

I found the grammar to be easier than Latin or Spanish, but part of that may have been because I grew up around it. I found the writing/reading vocab to be a giant pain.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:15 AM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I studied Chinese for two years in college and really struggled. It is a very difficult language to learn and I think you would need to be able to devote more than two years to study. Here's an article you might find interesting: Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.
posted by mingshan at 12:44 PM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've been learning Chinese for about 6/7 years now, I think. I started in university, then lived in China (Tianjin) for the summer, then back in Canada for a year, then back in Nanjing for another. Eventually I moved to Taiwan for another year. In short, I have experienced quite a lot of Chinese language work! And as I type this, I am suffering through transcribing and translating articles written in late classical Chinese from 1904 (I'm getting my grad degree in East Asian Studies, focusing on late Qing China), and going bonkers in the process.

I will say that learning Chinese is one of the most rewarding things in my life, but that it is in equal parts also the most frustrating. After one year at school (and this is my own experience as well as others in the "China field") you learn basically nothing. One year of grueling, intensive study, where I spent hours each day writing out the most chicken-scratch characters you've ever seen, hours spent repeating, over and over again "ma1 媽, ma2 痲, ma3 馬, ma4 罵" and the like, and amazed at my speedy progress! Yet, after all that, I got to China and could barely order tea. Of the students in Tianjin that summer, more than half dropped out of the program. They realized that this is a language which requires more work than any other they'd been familiar with (and these were a lot of bilingual kids from Montreal), and they just didn't have sufficient interest in China to make it worth their while. The rest of us were just too stubborn to give up.

Coming back to school after that year, I enrolled in Chinese to keep my level up - it is absolutely impossible to keep your level up in north America. I say this knowing that my Chinese now is pretty damn good, but I've been back here for 8 months (I was in Taiwan again last summer) and once again, I feel the drop,even with the fact that I study Chinese texts, day in and day out.

Chinese is great for traveling in China. Even my mediocre Chinese at the end of my first summer there helped me immeasurably, and really made my trip. Being able to converse, even if I sounded like a semi-backwards 3 year old, was not only helpful in terms of being able to get around, but it let me meet people on a person-to-person level that other foreign tourists just seemed to avoid.

But, it is especially hard compared to other languages, and you will have practically no proficiency after 2 years studying in the west. You will have nowhere near enough to function in any sort of business environment. Most Chinese have been studying English since childhood, and their English - if they're in any way ambitious - will trump your Chinese any day of the week.

You'll speed up quickly when you land, but learning here is almost completely worthless. You'll spend two years here with an insane amount of work, whereas a summer at a language school there, where you're immersed in the environment, works wonders for speedy comprehension. If you're interested at all in the language (after this windblown exposition), go there, straight away, and don't waste your time trying to grapple with language structures that are completely absent in a western context. Characters can become more "friendly" the more you see them, tones become second nature the more you hear them. Learning in the west does nothing to help comprehension, and provides nothing but a constant uphill struggle.

Even with all this, I do love speaking Chinese. I love, love, love, love, love it. I can't wait to go back. Just thinking about the food... sigh. :)
posted by Herman Hermanson at 2:18 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I grew up speaking Mandarin in the house with my parents, who speak zero English. In high school I tried to teach myself how to write, something like 1-2 characters a day, but after a month I gave up because it was just too much. After that I remember up to a month later I'd look back at the textbook and could still recall some of the words I taught myself, but then went completely back to illiterate after two months tops. Coming from someone who already speaks Chinese, learning just how to write alone was tough. On the other end, I took one year of Japanese in high school. I could not pick up any grammar or form a sentence, but I was so pro at learning how to read hiragana; even five years after I can still read it which was really strange.

As a side note, for college I ended up picking engineering as a major because it was the only major in which you did not have to take foreign language for required degree credits. Now I really wish I had picked up a language- French, Spanish, anything.
posted by Jimmie at 7:11 PM on April 26, 2008

I moved to China in September of 2004 and returned in May of 2007. When I went, I couldn't speak a word of Chinese. I lived in Sichuan, (Mianyang and Chongqing Shi), and am now, um, highly functional though not fluent.

After returning to America I enrolled in college and am currently on Mandarin 402. It is really pretty easy from a vocabulary and even structure point of view although I am always trying to improve my tones and pinyin. Last term I had two professors, both from Taiwan, and the class would have been impossible if I hadn't already spoken Chinese. The class was full of Chinese-Americans that were just learning Mandarin to supplement their Cantonese. The class was dropped by most of the non-Chinese in the class. My professor this term is very supportive and encouraging and focuses more and speaking and communicating and isn't as strict regarding tones as my the two previous.

So, Give it a try and should you not take to it right away be prepared to try another professor. I also recommend ChinesePod and Pimsleur.

Good luck!
posted by geekyguy at 7:50 PM on April 26, 2008

I had 3 years of HS French when I went to college so I decided to try Chinese instead. Oh boy, it's HARD! For me, learning and writing the characters were not so hard (it just takes a lot of practice), but I couldn't get a grip on the tonal qualities. I guess it would depend a little on your musical ability---if you're able to distinguish between similar tones, especially in sequence, you might do ok. I ended up taking 2 semesters of Chinese and although I really liked it, not much of it stuck with me. Grammar is definitely easier, as someone above mentioned. The word order is generally very straightforward. But it's the tones that got me. Good luck.
posted by hulahulagirl at 8:33 PM on April 28, 2008

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