Nihao's It Going?

Mandarin is Not Worth Learning: Unless You Have a Good Reason

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I can’t find any statistics on what percentage of foreigners (Westerners) speak Mandarin in Taiwan, but by simple observation I wouldn’t expect that number to be quite low.

When I say “speak Mandarin” I am setting the standard to be able to work in an office with a decent amount of Mandarin or to be able to have a normal day to day conversation with a stranger about the price increase of the avocados in the local Carrefour.

There are a ton of reasons why Westerners don’t learn past a nice little nihao or a xiexie, and that is because the pay off for learning Mandarin is probably not worth it unless you are determined to live in a Mandarin speaking region for a long time. Even then, you don’t need to learn how to write because the opportunity costs behind learning how to write and learning how to speak and read is just out of kilter. Even then, you probably can get by in life with just being able to speak because most signs in Taiwan have English or self-explanatory signs of toilets or cats crossing roads.

Houtong Cat Village Cat Crossing sign

I can say that after 5 years of learning Mandarin and putting a lot of effort in for the first 3 years of it, I am not nervous when I am in a sticky spot when I am in an all Mandarin environment. I won’t go so far as to say my Mandarin is good, I’m just not afraid to use Mandarin in a situation, and I’m not afraid to say “I don’t understand/我不懂”.

What I have learned from all my time learning Mandarin is that it gives you a blatant advantage over other expats. People are more likely to take an interest in you, but sometimes that can be annoying. I cannot tell you the amount of times I have heard “wow your Chinese, it is so good 很棒”, but I do my best to smile. Don’t take that the wrong way, I appreciate anyone saying good job to me, but when you have heard it so many times, even when you have just said nihao with the right tones, you tend to think any level of Mandarin being used is enough to be impressive.

Having Mandarin made my transition into China so much easier. When I arrived with my friends to Minzu University, we unknowingly came to China too early in the middle of August. Our visas were only for 1 month when we arrived, and we didn’t know we had to renew them after we registered with the university and have an approved health check, along with a residence form.

I was able to use my very limited Mandarin to get registered earlier, have a medical report I had done in Ireland certified early and I got my residence form in 1 day after pushing for it. I managed to put my passport into transit for my new visa with 2 days left, while my friends, with my help and knowledge, got it through in the last minute.

Other times, having Mandarin opened many doors for me in China and Taiwan in terms of being able to interact with local people who would otherwise have no other means of communicating with foreigners. My first experience of communicating with non-English speaking Chinese people was in my second week in Beijing. I went with a friend to get some meat skewers (串兒) and we talked with the owners and had a beer. We heard their gripes about neighbours and their troubles with a modernizing world.

In Taiwan, Mandarin helped me sort out my Alien Residency Card a lot sooner than I could’ve if I didn’t speak English and with only English, my application for National Chengchi University would have taken longer. I can also eat more locally and chance my arm with the biandang places (便當) because I can read menus and most of all, I can get in touch with pop culture a lot easier rather than relying on Taiwanese friends to understand Western pop culture.

So, with all that, you would think learning Mandarin is a must for living in China and Taiwan. I would say it is most definitely good to have, but I cannot commit to the idea of someone learning Mandarin without first committing to living here.

Mandarin is a lot harder than you think. The more you learn it, the more you realize you know very little of it. Don’t buy into the nonsense that Mandarin is easy because characters are basically pictures, they aren’t, they are characters with an intimidating amount of radicals that form words that need to be rote learned and remembered.

The Foreign Service Institute ranks Mandarin as a category 5 language, meaning, it would take someone from America 2,200 hours to learn Mandarin fluently. Category 1 languages such as French and Spanish take around 600 hours.

Mandarin was never going to be the language of the future, despite what your parents, newspapers and Confucius Institutes told you. It was a bit of fad when China was gaining momentum as an economic power, but it isn’t something you necessarily need.

When employers in China and Taiwan look at your resume, they are looking for your experience and qualifications. Having Mandarin is a definite plus, but it isn’t the deciding factor behind getting a job. Your experience, presentation and knowledge is what will get you a job.

I once challenged this way of thinking with a friend in Ireland who had returned from living in China for 5 years. He told me “if there are 1.3 billion Chinese people and 23 million Taiwanese people, what makes you stand out having Mandarin?”.

You might stand out in front of other foreigners if you can speak decent Mandarin, but you won’t stand out with locals. It is a good strategy to have the experience and knowledge, and add to it the cherry on top, Mandarin, but learning it isn’t essential.

I don’t regret learning Mandarin during my undergraduate studies. I had an interest in anything Chinese-related at the time and I have had the opportunity to travel out of it.

I might sound like I am saying, never mind Mandarin, you don’t need it, they all speak English there. No, I think you should adopt the language of anywhere you live, it is only right. What I am getting at is that when it comes to Mandarin, you really do need to be committed to learn it.

My tip to someone learning Mandarin is to get your story ready. “What is my story” you may ask, it is saying basically where you are from, where you learned Mandarin, for how long, what you do for a living and saying thank you a lot. You will need this because not a lot of foreigners can make that type of conversation and locals will take an interest in you if you initiate with them in Mandarin.

If you are considering learning Mandarin, don’t let me put you off, but just remember, you need a good reason to want to learn. I know people who have Taiwanese wifes and decided to learn out of respect for them, or some people just enjoy Taiwan so much that having Mandarin makes sense. Having the right reason to learn is important, or you will give up early and have chabuduo(差不多) Mandarin.

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12 Replies to “Mandarin is Not Worth Learning: Unless You Have a Good Reason”

  1. What if I’m just annoyed by the fact that the british/american empire pillaged and enslaved half the world, initiated a war in my country which lasts until today, and yet I’m forced to use only their bloody language to communicate with other people around the world? Do u consider that as a sufficient reason? What if I’m curious to get to know a different culture through language as well as through living at their country, a culture that didn’t bother to pump endless crappy movies and food all around the world? I’m just trying to say, not everything is about money and payoff bottom line.

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  2. Mandarin can be hard to learn, but I’d argue that much of the difficulty comes from inefficient and outdated teaching methods.

    Consider, for example, the multitude of Chinese Language Centres (華語中心) attached to universities around the island. Nearly all of these centres follow a fairly similar curriculum based on grammar translation, memorisation of vocabulary, forced output, and error correction. However, language acquisition research over the past 30 years has demonstrated that these methods are extremely inefficient, and in some cases harmful.

    Newer methods, on the other hand, emphasis comprehensible input as the key to language acquisition: giving students interesting language that they can understand (through listening or through reading). There is substantial research to support this position: by exposing students to massive amounts of interesting and comprehensible input, students can acquire language in a natural way, similar to how we acquire our native language.

    Unfortunately, most Chinese language schools schools in Taiwan seem to be completely unaware of this research or unwilling to invest in new methods. As result, students end up spending far more time than is necessary in becoming fluent. Many students, even after attending lessons for some time, end up feeling disappointed in their progress. In my opinion, this contributes to the perception that Mandarin is inherently hard to learn.

    For those people considering learning Mandarin, I’d strongly recommend doing a bit of research into newer methods. Consider your time as a precious finite resource, far too precious to waste several years on inefficient methods.

    If you’re looking for modern methods: then TPR and TPRS are both well-regarded within the second language acquisition community. Both of these methods are the subject of ongoing research. Finding a teacher willing to use these methods in Taiwan can be hard, but they are out there!

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  3. The fact is (based on 20 years in China and running a biz) it was good for fun, plus for socialising but seriously, every time it came down to negotiation, a translator from both parties is the way forward. You’ll butcher your business if you try yourself. Seen boat loads of people that came for a decade or more, mastered the language, but they ALL have left.
    Its not that Chinese wasn’t useful, its just ceased to be any more, society has changed massively due to the governments increasingly facist behaviour.

    We recently relocated to India for many reasons.

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  4. Totally agree Mossy. I’m at a HSK 5 level and knowing that I am leaving China next year makes me question why I should bother progressing any further (or even why I progressed passed HSK 4). It’s a tough language and very few people ever get close to fluency. I’m studying Korean on the side and I am flawed by how comparatively easy to pick up. I don’t regret studying Chinese, it will look nice on my resume, help me acquire Japanese and Korean a little faster, but unless I get a job where it’s needed I can’t see it being of any practical use except for listening in on what my future local Chinese restaurant owners are saying. The same can be said for Japanese and Korean but at least their cultural exports help justify the commitment a little more.

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  5. I’ve found that one can get by fairly easily in Taipei without much Mandarin besides the basic numbers and xie xie. Good if you’re on vacation here; bad if you’re at that intermediate level where you theoretically could try to use it, but aren’t quite sure exactly how to say something. Outside of Taipei however, especially in the South, my basic Mandarin skills were much more useful.

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  6. I speak a little bit more than enough Mandarin to get by in most circumstances, but there are always those occasions when there’s something I don’t understand or don’t know how to say in a way that will make myself clearly understood. That just requires additional effort on my part to learn the correct vocabulary in a slow process of attrition. Another problem is Taiwanese – if you get into any sort of conflict, you might just get shouted at in Hoklo at which point your Mandarin is useless.

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    1. Oh yes, Taiwanese. I met a 90-year-old who showed us around a village near Jiufen, where he remembers the British POWs being worked to death in gold mines. Girlfriend was there and helped me catch the Taiwanese he was speaking. A man of his age smoking a pack a day and walk 10k.

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