The waitress at a Beijing cafe comes to take my order. Confidently, I say in Mandarin, “a coke please.” She remains frozen, not sure what I just asked her to do. I know the drill, and so I try again: “one glass of Coca-Cola, if you will.” This time she understands, and as she turns towards the kitchen, I’m left wondering: “how come after three and a half years of living in China and studying Mandarin, ordering a coke is still a challenge?”
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Mandarin and other Chinese dialects are heavily tonal languages, meaning tone is used to distinguish words that may appear similar but in fact can have completely separate meanings. Chinese has five crucial tones, and using them correctly will allow you to differentiate between such words as mother (ma) and horse (also ma).
Even words and names that are considered universal have their own Chinese adaptation. McDonald’s is known here as Mài dāng láo, Starbucks is Xīng bā kè, and Cola is pronounced kě (using a descending, then ascending tone) lè (descending tone). Miss the subtlety of the tonal change, and you’ll remain thirsty.
Mandarin has grown in popularity in recent years. As China ascends as a global economic, technological, and cultural power, Mandarin has become an “It” language, studied by the likes of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump’s grandchildren. In 2014, when Zuckerberg surprised students in Beijing by taking a Q&A session in Mandarin, the crowd cheered. Zuckerberg’s Mandarin skills were not great, but for Chinese people, who know how difficult their language is to master, even a foreigner who successfully says “hello” in Chinese could be considered a rare genius.
Online, there are countless articles and websites advertising Mandarin as the language of the future. Already today, Mandarin is the world’s most spoken language, with some 900 million native speakers. In a decade or so, when China leaps over the U.S. to become the world’s top economy, its official language will likely grow more predominant.
Those who recommend the studying of Mandarine ignore one thing—how deeply difficult it is to master. For me, studying Mandarin began as a non-binding hobby. But the language proved cunning and drew me in. The initial successes—making my first coherent sentence or reading the first street sign—encouraged me to invest more and more in studying the language.
According to my textbooks, my language skills are now considered intermediate, but that has little to do with reality. In real life, I can engage in a flowing conversation on the Chinese economy with one cab driver in the morning only to enter another cab later that day and not be able to understand a word of what the driver is saying.
Spoken Chinese is a mix of seven to 12 dialects, depending on whom you ask. The Chinese in your textbooks is not really the Chinese people here speak. Even among those who speak official Mandarin Chinese, there’s a tremendous spectrum of accents. Without a doubt, the accents you meet in life are worlds apart from the eloquent, clear pronunciation of your Chinese teachers.
Still, spoken Chinese is the easy part. The real challenge is reading and writing. Those who advertise studying the language like to note that while the Chinese language has more than 50,000 characters, only 3,000 of them are necessary to read a daily newsletter.
The American linguist and sinologist John DeFrancis famously noted that even native Chinese speakers require seven to eight years to learn the 3,000 characters necessary to read a newspaper, twice as much as it takes native Spanish or French speakers to reach a similar level in their own languages. Israeli students who study Mandarin for their high school diploma are tested on their familiarity with a mere 600 characters, barely enough to read the weather report.
In his 1994 article “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard,” American sinologist David Moser wrote about a conversation he had with one of his fellow graduate students, who told Moser his research is suffering by the fact that he cannot read Chinese. At the time, the graduate student had been studying the language for more than ten years. “This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers,” Moser wrote.
One of the most interesting questions today is whether China’s global economic and political rise will make Mandarin into a lingua franca—a common language bridging people who speak different languages, as English is for much of the world today.
In 2004, British linguist David Graddol famously forecasted that by 2050, Mandarin will be one of the world’s dominant languages, challenging even the popular English. Since then, many other linguists disagreed with Graddol’s assertion, saying that Mandarin is simply too complicated to master as a second language.
In his 2011 book “You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity,” linguist and journalist Robert Lane Greene writes that as long as China sticks to its character-based text—something he believes will last a long time for practical and cultural reasons—Mandarin is unlikely to become a common language.
Frankie Huang is a Chinese-American journalist. Born in China, when she was three her family moved to the U.S. Huang’s parents decided she should stay in China for three more years so she could acquire Mandarin. In her March article published on SupChina.com, she writes that when she graduated from college in 2009, she discovered that potential employers were mostly unimpressed with her fluent Mandarin. For them, mastering Chinese was a nice skill, like mastering excel. It was less important to them than the relevant job experience.
I agree with Huang’s conclusion. Most of the people studying Chinese will never reach a proficiency that will allow them to use the language professionally. The few who do succeed have likely put so much effort into acquiring the language, they did not leave much time to learn other crucial job skills. With countless Chinese students graduating from western universities each year, translators from Chinese to English—and most other languages—are easy to find.
Some, of course, do succeed. With hard work and patience, one can reach such mastery of Mandarin as Canadian Mark Rowswell, better known by his Chinese name Dashan. His perfect Mandarin has allowed him to develop a successful career as a comedian and television personality in China, and he is now one of the best-known foreigners in China. Still, those who consider studying Mandarin should approach the task with realistic expectations: to truly master the language, plan to invest at least a decade.