The Best Language To Learn, Ctd

A fluent Mandarin speaker writes:

I totally support more people learning Mandarin Chinese, not least because it’s a rewarding and interesting language that (believe it or not) is fairly easy to pick up as a spoken language due to its fantastically simple grammar. However, I also have to point out that your reader who compares learning Mandarin Chinese to “learning European” obviously doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Speaking Mandarin in most parts of Mainland China is not the same as speaking English in France. Instead, it is more like speaking Latin in the Roman Empire, or German in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Wherever you go, there will always be educated people who can speak to you. And if people are in a field where they have to work with the general public, it is certain that they will be able to speak Mandarin to a reasonable standard. Yes, every part of China has a local dialect (although in some parts this dialect is little different than Mandarin – Nanjing, for example), but this dialect is normally only used in circumstances where the speaker is fairly sure that those listening to them will understand.

Another reader offers an important, and basic, clarification:

The comment that “learning Chinese is like learning European” irritated me so much that I feel the need to write to you for the first time in a decade-plus of reading your blog. Chinese is a written language. Mandarin is the most common spoken dialect of Chinese. Mandarin and Chinese are not interchangeable terms.

Update from a reader:

“Mandarin is the most common spoken dialect of Chinese.” This statement isn’t exactly true. Mandarin, in its current form, is a refinement and standardization of the dialect that’s spoken in the capital city, Beijing. The practice of making the dialect of the capital city the “official dialect” goes back hundreds of years. While the adaptation of the Beijing dialect as the “official dialect” probably goes back to the Ming Dynasty, the refinement/standardization that lead to its current form occurred during the early years of the KMT/Republic of China government.

Another reframes the discussion:

Setting out to learn any foreign language only for practical reasons – I’ll be able to order in restaurants! I’ll be able to get a better job! – is, for most people, an enormous waste of time.

Foreign languages – that is, languages not spoken where you live, languages that you have little or no opportunity to use in daily life – are incredibly difficult to acquire, requiring thousands of hours of focused study over a span of years, and are quickly forgotten if not used. And even if you’re one of the few people who become fluent in a foreign language, you might still end up not having much chance ever to use it.

If, on the other hand, you set out to learn a foreign language to challenge yourself, to learn about other parts of the world, to learn how other people think, to make yourself think in different ways, then it will be worth the effort. In that case, the target language matters little. It would be just as rewarding to learn Korean, Tamil, or Hungarian as French, German, or Mandarin Chinese. Dead languages – Latin, classical Greek, classical Chinese, Sanskrit – are great, too. Pick one and go for it.

Or pick many, as this reader has:

As someone who’s studied English, Gujarati, Marathi, French, German, Japanese, Arabic, and Chinese, in addition to my native Hindi, at some point or another, I can attest to nuggets of brilliance in all languages. German is stupendous for its clarity and directness; Japanese for the detail in which allows the speaker to describe things; Hindi for its vigor and vitality; English in the way it allows itself to be molded by the speaker, whether she’s from Nigeria, Nala Sopara, or Nantucket. Arabic and Persian poems are the most heart-wrenching. Each language has its charm.