Stop being lazy: It's time to improve your Mandarin skills

Andy Boreham
China's government has announced plans to promote Mandarin around the country with an annual, weeklong campaign. Why not use it as an excuse to improve your own Mandarin?
Andy Boreham
Stop being lazy: It's time to improve your Mandarin skills

You’ll be surprised which doors you can open with a bit of effort to learn some of the lingua franca. 

China’s government has announced plans to promote Mandarin around the country with an annual, weeklong campaign. Sure, it’s not aimed at foreigners, but why not use it as an excuse to improve your own Mandarin?

You live in China, remember?

It’s totally up to you — you no doubt place importance on completely different spheres of life than the next guy — but for me, being able to hold a conversation in the lingua franca of the place I live is super important. (No, I don’t speak Shanghainese, but officially Mandarin is all that’s needed to get you by, especially since nearly half of the city’s residents are from out of town, and many locals don’t speak the dialect anyway.) But being able to say “hello,” “I want this,” and “thank you” just won’t cut it. It’s time to break free from the too hard basket and embrace Mandarin life. It’s easier than you think.

So many opportunities

The great thing about living in China is that you are in the perfect place to learn, each and every day. Listen to TV shows and music, even if you don’t understand, because that will give you an understanding of the sounds and structure and flow of Mandarin. That’s really important when it comes to imitating the sound later on, which is what you’ll want to do.

Go to school

One of the biggest myths people believe before they come here is that they’ll learn Chinese just by being here — that’s not true at all. It does take a concerted effort, but there are many different Chinese schools for adults all around the city, offering face-to-face or online classes whenever suits. Structured learning is definitely suggested, at least in the beginning when building the fundamentals.

One of my favorites is GoEast, who just opened a new campus near Shanghai Library (their original school is near Fudan University).

CEO and co-founder Emily Wang knows that, despite Shanghai’s international flair and higher concentration of people able to speak English, learning Mandarin is really valuable.

“One can probably get around with just English,” she told me. “But most of the time you don’t even know what you’re missing out on if you don’t speak Mandarin.”

You don’t need to write

Here’s some good news: If the complexity of Chinese characters is holding you back from diving in, don’t let it — the reality is that hardly anyone has to write these days.

Most people type on computers and their phones using Pinyin, which is the Romanized version of the language. For example, if I want to write 你好 (hello) I just type ni hao. Even native Chinese speakers forget how to write certain characters and need to ask a friend or look online for help.

Reading, on the other hand, is an extremely useful tool, but if you’re just aiming to get by on a daily basis then it’s not super important.

You’re allowed to stuff up

The great thing about Mandarin and other Chinese languages is that everyone knows they’re super difficult — even the locals — so no one will laugh at you or tease you for getting anything wrong.

Use this to your advantage and speak as much as possible — ask locals how to say something correctly if you’re unsure.

Unexpected quirks

Mandarin taught me so many things outside of just language that I was completely unaware of before.

One example is mayonnaise: Call me an idiot, but for most of my life I never knew what the ingredient of one of our favorite dressings was, until the day I learned the word in Mandarin. Danhuang jiang is, like many words in Chinese languages, extremely literal and means “egg yolk sauce.” Bingo!

On top of that, language is a key into a certain culture, and when you start to learn one you really get an insight into how a group of people think.

But be careful, because it can seep into your native language if you’re not careful!

Lately I’ve found myself saying “eat your medicine” instead of the English “take,” just because that’s how the Chinese say it.

I know it’s a mountain too high for many people, especially those who have accidentally ended up here for work and are too busy, but I promise you you’ll have a closer and deeper bond with China if you just put in that little bit of effort.

You do live in China, after all.

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