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China in your hand: Why more and more adults are learning Chinese

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With more and more ‘foreign devils’ making the decision to learn Chinese, Claire Severn looks at the benefits and practicalities of taking on the local language.

As far as Asian countries go, Hong Kong is probably one of the easiest for foreigners to adapt to and settle down in. As a former British colony, English remains one of the territory’s official languages and can be found everywhere – on road signs, menus, even government publications. It’s perfectly possible to live here for years without learning a word of Chinese, and in the past that’s what many expats did – but not anymore.

Whether it’s for business purposes or as a hobby, more and more foreigners are choosing to learn Chinese, and oftentimes they’re finding it much easier than they anticipated.

Mandarin or Cantonese?

The question a lot of would be Chinese speakers ponder is whether they should learn Cantonese or Mandarin. Well let’s see… There are nearly 1.1 billion Mandarin speakers around the world; that’s nearly 15% of the total global population. Cantonese on the other hand is spoken by around 70 million people – a significant difference. That said, Cantonese shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

“It really depends on your objective,” explains Kate Zhou, founder and director of Yifan Mandarin, who offers Mandarin and Cantonese classes for both children and adults in DB North Plaza. “If you want to be able to get around in Hong Kong, to be able to talk to taxi drivers, to communicate in local shops, then start with Cantonese. If you want to speak Chinese at work but your job has no links with China, again, Cantonese is probably a good choice for you.”

Most people, however, see a bigger need for Mandarin than Cantonese, and if the current trend continues, Mandarin will play an ever-increasing role in day-to-day life in Hong Kong.

“When I moved here eight years ago and spoke Mandarin, people didn’t know how to respond to me,” says Debbie Tai, founder of Zhizhi Chinese Education, who offers Mandarin classes to both kids and adults in DB Plaza. “Nowadays, things are different. I encourage my students to practise Mandarin in their everyday lives because they can and will be understood. The local Cantonese-speaking community is adapting to Mandarin speakers, even here in DB.”

The learning curve

china in your han - kate

The good news is that, contrary to popular belief, you can pick up Chinese, whether Cantonese or Mandarin, quite quickly. “After just one or two lessons, you can actually start to communicate,” explains Kate, who has been teaching in DB for nine years. “My students tell me they are surprised at how quickly they can begin to understand things and also make themselves understood.”

According to Kate’s students, Chinese grammar is a plus point too. “Many people tell me that the grammar is easy compared to their own language,” says Kate. “However, they also say that it is very important to accept things for what they are. If you are always trying to figure out why things need to be in a certain order, you will struggle – stop analysing, accept the differences, and you will find things much easier.”

That mindset can be difficult for adults to adopt though, and there is a common perception that children learn languages more easily – that adults can’t absorb the information as effectively. “Kids are a blank piece of paper,” says Debbie, who has lived in DB for eight years. “You can print on them. But adults have the advantage when it comes to processing information. They figure out patterns more easily and learn faster.

“Adults are usually more motivated too,” Debbie adds. “They have chosen to learn the language, therefore they are committed and organise their own learning much more successfully than younger students. The challenge is remembering it all, so it’s important to revisit what you’ve learnt regularly to help with retention.”

Psychological factors can come into play as well. “Adults are very often nervous to speak,” explains Debbie. “They are afraid to make mistakes, but that’s where a good instructor comes in.”

Kate agrees. “Finding the right teacher for you is very important,” she says. “A good teacher makes complicated things simple. This encourages you to learn. We always offer new students a trial class so that they can see if our teaching style suits them. But it’s important to go in with the right mindset. If you go in thinking it will be too difficult, you’ll end up quitting before you have given yourself the chance to succeed.”

“The biggest barrier for adults deciding to learn Chinese is not believing that they can do it,” affirms Debbie. “The key is to give it a chance.”

Characters and tones

Of course, one of the things that  puts a lot of people, particularly Westerners, off learning Chinese, is the challenge of getting to grips with a whole new way of reading and writing. The trick, according to Kate, is to begin with speaking and then move on when you are ready.

“We begin with Pinyin,” she explains, “the phonetic system, which uses the Roman alphabet. Reading and writing characters comes later. It’s a natural development.”

According to Debbie, once you do reach the stage of learning to read and write, it’s not as complicated  as you would expect. “Characters might appear complex,” she says, “however if you understand the structure, things become a lot simpler. In Chinese, we have what we call radicals – the roots of the words. From there, you build the character. So, for example, the root of the word ‘bright’ is the character for ‘sun.’ For ‘eating,’ it is ‘mouth.’ Once you know the radicals, you can predict the meanings of more complex words.”

The other aspect that students worry about is the concept of tones. “The tone used can completely change the meaning of a word,” says Debbie. “Say you want to ask for soup in a restaurant but get the tone wrong, you may end up with the waiter bringing you sugar! You need to pronounce things properly, but give yourself time – don’t expect to get it right within two weeks. Be patient, practice, and it will come.”

Feedback from students

So who exactly is it that’s signing up for Chinese lessons, and why do they want to learn the language? “We have two types of adult student,” says Kate, “those learning for business and those learning for social reasons, like travelling or helping their kids with homework.”

“More and more corporations want their staff to learn the language,” Debbie offers. “They are happy to support one-to-one programmes because they see the business benefits that result.”

Others learn for more personal reasons, whether it’s for travel, socialising or purely because they want to develop a new, practical skill. “We have one student, a pilot,” Kate says with a smile, “who wanted to be able to make passenger announcements in Cantonese, and now he can! He told me he sometimes hears some surprised laughter, but it’s fantastic that he can do this, that he can communicate in this way.”

Another of Kate’s clients particularly likes the ‘wow factor’ that he gets from friends, family and colleagues when he tells them he can speak some Chinese. Other people typically enjoy the fact that learning Chinese allows them to see things in a different way. One of Debbie’s students feels that the challenges are outweighed by the joy of learning something new, and looking at the world through different eyes.

And perhaps this is why expat DBers should be making the effort to learn the local language – to understand the culture around them better, to understand the people that they interact with on a daily basis, and to embrace what makes Hong Kong such a special place to live.


• Yifan Mandarin, www.yifan-mandarin.com.hk
• Zhizhi Chinese Education, www.zhizhichinese.com

Images: Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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