Benefits Of Learning The Language

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Memorizing songs in another language can be a fun and effective way to practice.
For Stephen, learning how to sing “Sailing in the Ocean Depends on the Helmsman,” a 1950s revolutionary ode to Mao Zedong Thought, became fodder for a cheering Chinese audience of 200 people.
Back in 2006 when Stephen first stayed with his host family, he wore a T-shirt displaying an image of Mao Zedong raising his hand to salute the troops. Below the image, was the title of the famous Communist war song “Dà hǎi háng xíng kǎo duò shǒu” (大海航行考舵手). So his Chinese brother and his friends taught him the lyrics and Stephen committed them to memory.
No one knew that four years later, Stephen would return to Beijing and sing his karaoke version of that song in a crowded restaurant. The crowd went wild. His Chinese family stood up and snapped photos. To this day, a Chinese family friend that attended that dinner still asks the host family, “Whatever happened to that kid who sang that song?”
See, knowing Chinese can do more than make your China experience more pleasant—it can help win you fans amongst the locals!
Technically, you can survive in a major city like Shanghai or Beijing without knowing how to speak Mandarin. According to the online news provider Xinhuanet, the first national syllabus for college English was published in 1979. These days, English is a mandatory subject in almost all Chinese postsecondary institutions.
So if you find yourself in China alone, stranded, lost, hungry, confused—have no fear. You’ll probably be able to get help in English.
But if you’re trying to land a great job or internship, you should beef up your Mandarin skills. This is no easy task. In David Moser’s essay humorously titled “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard,” taken fromSchriftfestschrift: Essays on Writing and Language in Honor of John DeFrancis on His Eightieth Birthday, he breaks down the language’s unique qualities as well as what makes it so painful to learn. (Again, this is not to discourage you, reader. This is intended to help you keep your perspective as you embark upon this exciting journey. If most people—including the Chinese—agree this language is difficult to learn, then you’re not alone).
Basically, it comes down to two features: the writing system (which uses characters and no alphabet) and the sobering fact that intonation changes the meaning. “Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty,” Moser writes.                
In Stephen’s case, ongoing education and a few trips to China proved to be incredibly useful.
In 2005, he enrolled in a four-week language camp atConcordia Language Village. The following year, he spent the summer in a two-month long immersion program,The National Security Language Initiative for Youth, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State for eligible high school students. This is where he was assigned a homestay with the people he now calls his “Chinese family.” Developing that close relationship with his Chinese family was a major reason he wanted to return to China and work. His Chinese father often gave him business advice. His Chinese mother taught him the secret ways of navigating through Chinese bureaucracy. And his Chinese brother, just two years older than Stephen, welcomed Stephen into his circle of friends. Keeping in touch with his Chinese family was also a great way to practice his Mandarin.
Stephen continued studying the language during every summer of college. And again in 2009, he spent four months studying abroad in Kunming and Beijing.
Stephen, who began studying Mandarin 5 years before he landed his internship, admits there were times during his stay when he felt like he wasn’t making any progress in the language. For him, giving up wasn’t an option because he was already living in China.
Stephen remembers feeling overwhelmed the first couple of months of his internship. Multiple times a day, it struck him how much vocabulary he didn’t know. He had his regular go-to guy, a colleague named 王韬 Wang Tao, who was usually happy to translate anything. Wang Tao often gave Stephen an “idiom of the day” and Stephen responded with new language questions. He had a voracious appetite for new Chinese words. In his mind, being able to hold a conversation in Mandarin wasn’t enough.
Stephen remembers wrestling with how to explain the definition of a database in Chinese. He also remembers thinking he would never be able to conduct a business meeting in Chinese. He had studied the language for years, done immersion programs and visited China several times before. But he still had language low points.
One day, as he and his Yuanfen~Flow colleagues were in a frenzy in the wee hours of the morning preparing the art gallery for an event, Stephen realized he didn’t know how to instruct contractors on how to arrange the old factory-style building. It was complicated. The contractors were supposed to arrange steel beams and a custom door in a certain way. They needed to assemble large screens. And Stephen didn’t know how to explain it.
Amid the commotion, Stephen once again asked Wang Tao to give him the words he needed. This time, an agitated Wang Tao told Stephen to use English instead because there was no time for a lesson.
Stephen remembers feeling extremely discouraged at that moment. He thought, “When it’s down to the wire and you don’t know the right vocab, you’re screwed.”
Eventually, Stephen realized he had to let go. There was no way he was going to learn every single Chinese word. And hectic situations could happen again. But it was okay.  Stephen put it in perspective like this: You learn new English words all the time. So you can never say you’re done studying Chinese. After realizing that, he stressed out a lot less.
With patience, persistence and the right program that fits your learning style, it isnot impossible to learn Mandarin. From Stephen’s perspective, it is completely possible to learn the spoken language quickly through pinyin, which is the system of writing Chinese words using the Roman alphabet plus intonations.
Of course, he doesn’t endorse avoiding Chinese characters altogether. He merely wants Mandarin students to remember that speaking Mandarin is easier than reading or writing Mandarin. So when studying Chinese characters gets so frustrating that it brings you to tears, remember this: You can survive in China just fine without knowing Chinese characters.
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