There are many reasons why starting to consider Chinese as a language to learn for the future is a good idea. In my opinion there are many people still reluctant to admit the importance of this language. While on the other side, there are many others afraid of it (characters, sounds, the culture distance etc). From my personal experience I can say: i) is difficult but not impossible, ii) there is much more people that you think starting to study it, iii)is going to be an asset in the future.
Why did I start learning Chinese
I arrived in Beijing in early February 2013. The only words I could say by then were Ni hao (hello) and Xiexie (thank you). Nothing else. I had no prior contact with the language. I decided to study it as a way to differentiate my career and from the several learning options available I took the private classes lessons in a language school.
This implied 4h class plus 4-5h daily personal study. I complemented it watching soap operas in chinese, using memory cards on spare time, getting a language partner and last but not least setting HSK exams as goals. (For more materials and books please click here).
I believe fluent English is nothing but a minimum nowadays, and we should grow internationally towards intercultural and global work/companies/positions. That is why in my opinion 3 to 4 languages is a must nowadays in order to consider yourself as interesting candidate for a company. I would recommend learning a language that is attractive to you, so it is easier to keep the motivation up. In my case it was Mandarin and Japanese. I started with the first one, and would not mind to look at the second one in the mid term.
Is it difficult to study Chinese?
Yes. I am not going to lie. It is quite difficult to achieve a good level of Chinese, but do not believe the cowards, it is not an impossible thing to do. Please take a look at these charts from Business Insider. It takes more than around three times more than a normal language to learn. That is time/money/motivation consuming, but again, not impossible. Tons of people are doing it.
Will Chinese open your working possibilities?
That is a tricky question. The answer is it depends. Remember that sooner or later (we all should hope is not to quickly and not to messy) China will gain the first position as the biggest economy of the world, and 1.2 billion people have this language as mother tongue. Plus, while the middle class is tending to disappear in part of the Western countries, China has everything to do there yet. However, remember it is a quite difficult language to swim into that will take you some years to feel comfortable with, and that technical words get quite difficult on the business arena. Take IMF as an example, as in Chinese there are not acronyms they have to say the complete word For International Monetary Fund, which in Mandarin is: 国际货币基金组织. Easy? Not really. Now imagine reading the FT in Chinese. So going back my answer to the question is yes, but on the long term.
What about Cantonese?
Cantonese and Mandarin share the way of writing (although Cantonese uses the traditional characters), and somewhat similar grammar, but are two different languages. Totally different pronunciations and an extra plus difficulty for Cantonese, nine pronunciation tones instead of four in Mandarin. Having a mandarin base would help, really, but consider that the amount of people speaking Cantonese is much lower and concentrated on the South of China. Mandarin speakers do not understand Cantonese speakers and viceversa. It would be a great advantage if willing to work in Hong Kong though.
My basic recommendations to study Mandarin
1. Time. No excuses. Reserve 1h a day or three sessions per week to study. Is the only way.
2. Materials. Going through the content of the book is ok, but try to use on a regular basis other methods, as language partners, films, music, cartoons, kid books etc. Find a Chinese learning your language for language and cultural exchange, it will be easy and much more interesting.
3. Do exams. HSK exams have a must learn vocabulary for each exam that in my opinion is quite useful on a daily basis. So you are not learning by heart how to say each piece of dressing of your closet, or all the sport names. Most important words so you can learn and advance. I strongly recommend it.
4. Study in China. At least for a while. Beijing or Shanghai are “more friendly” for westerns but there are other possibilities in case wanting to avoid those. I can recommend language schools over universities on this sense (contact me for more info on this sense).
5. R-R-R. Read-Repeat-Revise. On every session. The more you see the characters, they easier they will stick on your brain. Pronunciation in Mandarin is not easy, so read aloud, and let you mouth feel the sounds. You will not be able to speak otherwise.