Everything about China and it's culture

Everything about China and it's culture

How hard is it to learn Chinese?

An independent school has become the first in the UK to make

A child carries a toy bear and a flag on Beijing's Tiananmen Square
Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken in China

Mandarin Chinese compulsory for pupils, reflecting the growing importance of China on the world stage. But it’s not an easy language to master.

China used to be called a sleeping giant. Now, as the world’s fastest growing major economy, it is well and truly awake.

British exports to the country are expected to quadruple by the end of the decade and the government wants every school, college and university to be twinned with an equivalent in China within the next five years.

An estimated 100 schools in the UK are now teaching Mandarin, China’s official language, according to the British Council – the UK’s international organisation for educational and cultural relations.


Brighton College, an independent school in East Sussex, this week became the first to make the language compulsory, alongside French, Spanish and Latin.

But it is a tough language to learn for Westerners. There are two main reason for this, says Dr Frances Weightman, a lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds.

Firstly, the script poses problems. There is no alphabet, just thousands of characters. There are so many that no one can give a definitive total, but it is believed to be around 60,000.

Tone one – A fairly high, even tone
Tone two – A rising tone, much like the sound at the end of a sentence with a question mark
Tone three – Falls then rises. Like the second, but must dip first
Tone Four – Sharp falling tone, a little like how the end of a sentence with an exclamation mark sounds
Half tone – Pronounce words with light tones in about half the time you would a normal word, without putting emphasis on it

Secondly, the tonal system is hard for Westerners. While the meaning of English words does not change with tone, the same is not true for Mandarin.

Four-and-a-half tones are used, meaning a single word can have many meanings. Ma, for example, can mean mother, horse, hemp, or be a reproach depending on tone. How tones are used also varies extensively from province to province.

"The tonal systems can result in a lot of ambiguity for people learning the language," says Dr Weightman.

Westerners have the reputation of using the fourth tone exclusively for all words. It is a sharp falling sound, a little like how the end of a sentence with an exclamation mark sounds.

Pinyin, a system of transliterating Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet, is used by Westerners to learn basic Mandarin. Things get tougher when students start learning characters, but language experts say a person only needs roughly 5,000 to be literate.

‘It’s like singing’

One thing that is easier in Mandarin is the grammar.

"The grammar is not nearly as complicated as many European languages," says Dr Weightman. "For example there are no verb tenses, no relative clauses, no singular or plural."

The number of people in the UK learning Mandarin has gone up considerably in recent years, she adds.

"It really appeals to kids, they find the different characters fun and grasp the different tones well, it’s like singing for them. The more we demystify the language, the more people will learn it. At the moment it is still seen as exotic and a bit strange, which can put people off. But that’s changing."

GCSE entries for the Chinese languages of Mandarin and Cantonese crept up to just under 4,000 last year. Even with its falling popularity, however, the number of entries in French still hit 320,000.

Ann Martin, a Mandarin teacher at the Ashcombe School in Dorking Surrey, believes part of the problem is the exam system, which isn’t designed for non native speakers and is hard for them to gain good grades compared to native speakers.

"As far as schools are concerned head teachers are reluctant to timetable Chinese because it is not achievable for non-native speakers," she says.

Business experts are in no doubt about how important Mandarin will become over the next few years.

BBC business reporter Mary Hennock says students speaking fluent English and Chinese are going to be the executives of the future.

"China’s economy is growing so quickly and becoming so influential in the world economy that people can’t afford to ignore it. People who want to be ahead in whatever industry need to think about China and learning Chinese."

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