If you ask a group of language learners what they think is the most difficult language to learn, the unanimous answer would probably be Mandarin Chinese.
Between the written characters, tones and pronunciation and grammar differences between Mandarin and English, many learners consider Mandarin as an almost overwhelming challenge.
Funnily enough, this hasn't stopped English speakers and others from taking course after course to learn this fascinating language. In fact, the rate of English speaking students across the world taking the HSK Chinese Test is constantly growing.
So why do so many people want to face this great challenge?
Well, because they see the good value that having even a conversational level of Mandarin Chinese could have. The Chinese economy is growing exponentially, with important effects on world trade, in almost any sector.
Apart from this, China is a country with a fascinating history and mosaic of cultures that students also get to discover with each lesson while they're learning the language.
So, when is the best time to start learning Mandarin Chinese?
Let's have a look at some different answers to this question, and talk about why you should start a Mandarin Chinese course...
Chinese and Young Learners (8 years old and below)
Chinese is interesting in that it features 'sinographs', or characters that are used to represent whole words, rather than an alphabetical system as in English.
There are more than 50,000 of these characters, although linguistics research shows that, for reading and writing most ideas, you probably only need to know around 3,000 characters.
English speakers can also use the Pinyin system, which represents Chinese Mandarin characters in the Latin alphabet. The Pinyin system was designed so English speakers could learn characters and tones more easily.
Of course, learning either system takes time and practice, both written and reading, and it's actually a great step to start courses from a young age.
Many people think that children are too young, or may get overwhelmed by a language course, but this isn't quite the case. In fact, you'll find it's quite the opposite, and there are many reasons why.
Children can learn languages efficiently and become conversational in no time, as long as they're exposed to the right kind of courses step by step.
You don't want your child to be in a course where they spend all day repeating after the teacher or reading from a book. They won't get very far given that children at this age are not so great at sitting still or memorising information.
A much better strategy is learning through play, conversation, problem-solving and more. This methodology is called 'immersion' and it's going to be much more effective class by class than a more traditional type of lesson.
There are plenty of schools across Australia that utilise this methodology, some examples are:
- Mandarin Stars- Locations in NSW, ACT, VIC and WA as well as online.
- Australian Mandarin Education Academy- In Sydney and online.
- Chinese Dojo- Locations across Perth
You could also consider enrolling your child in a bilingual kindergarten or primary school, which are becoming more and more popular across the country.
Rather than studying Chinese for 30 minutes a week or so, immersion schools teach half of their courses in Mandarin, so children learn both the language and other content at the same time, helping them learn faster.
They get vocabulary, listening and reading practice while hearing the pronunciation of a native speaker teacher.
Chinese Lessons as a Teenager
While it's not the most efficient way, the truth is that most children don't start properly reading, writing, listening and speaking in a foreign language until secondary school, and very few study Chinese at that level.
But just because they're getting started a little bit later, doesn't mean they don't have the possibility to learn step by step and move from beginners to more fluent learners.
While immersion is still the best way to learn even for older children, some might not be so interested in role-playing, arts and craft and more, but there are still fun learning activities they can try.
At these ages, the key is to make the students feel like they are progressing with their language skills but also learning about interesting aspects of Chinese culture that they can actually relate to.
And while a lot of teenagers want to study Mandarin for travel and work opportunities it could provide for them in the future, it's important to remember that the real objective of language lessons is to communicate with a whole new set of people.
It's true that at this age, they’ll focus more on grammar, the writing system, tones and more. High school classes tend to focus more on the theoretical aspects of the language instead of more practical ones.
Of course, some parts of the lesson should include more traditional tasks like grammar, vocabulary, writing and listening activities, but they should also include a range of interesting and current types of media.
This could be anything from downloading a free app where learning becomes more like play, watching a funny video for listening practice or even organising meetings with Chinese students of the same age for a type of language exchange.
Unfortunately, the number of high schools across Australia that offer Mandarin Chinese courses is quite low. A 2016 report by the Australia-China Relations Institute showed that only 0.1 per cent of the student cohort continues studying Chinese through to Year 12.
If your child's school doesn't have any Chinese study options, have a look at local language schools in your area, or you could also try hiring a private tutor.
Mandarin Chinese at University
After studying Mandarin during the final years of high school, students may want to continue working on their vocabulary, grammar, tones and more during higher education.
And whether you studied Chinese in high school or not, you may still have the opportunity to take your first lesson at university.
There are a few reasons why beginners might take up a sudden interest in language learning:
- They didn't have the opportunity or time during high school lessons
- They've realised how useful speaking a second language is
- They want to challenge themselves
Don't worry if you feel like you're starting too late!
Remember that the average university degree takes around 3 to 5 years. If you practice consistently day by day, that's more than enough time to seriously improve your Chinese language level.
There will be some differences in the way that classes are taught at a university and a private language school, for example:
- University classes will probably be more formal and involve more testing and exams.
- Language schools may offer different types of courses like exam preparation, conversational courses and more.
- A good language school is likely to be more expensive than a university course.
- Courses in university are likely to have more students per class.
- You will finish your university course with a diploma or certificate.
If you're not sure which one to choose, here are some ideas to consider:
- Language learning goals: Do you want to focus on more practical, conversational Chinese, Chinese for business etc.?
- Class hours: Are you willing to commit to your course hours, or do you want to have flexibility?
- Costs: Of course neither type is free, but which type will cost more?
Chinese Classes at Any Age
We've broken down how to go about starting Chinese classes at different ages, but the truth is that anyone can start learning languages at any age.
It's not going to be easy, and it takes time and practice for beginners to memorise characters, vocabulary, grammar and tones, but if you're willing to do the work is required, you can seriously improve your ability.
The important thing is to try some different styles of study, and see which one works best for you. Some options you could try are:
- Classes at an adult education centre like CAE in Melbourne
- Self-study using a textbook, app or online system
- A course with a private tutor
- An exchange program in China
Self-study can be good as you can organise your schedule and work when you like. However, it can be difficult to find the motivation and you're not going to get much practice with native speakers.
It's easy to find a private tutor online with websites like Superprof.com, and you have total control over what and when you learn. Classes can sometimes be expensive, but that's usually because you're working with great native speakers who have good experience teaching.
Finally, intensive courses in China are available to people of all ages. You get to travel and learn about Chinese culture, then apply what you've learned immediately in day to day life. However, these programs can become expensive.
No matter your reasons for studying Chinese, you can start whenever you're ready or try some innovative ways of learning for your child. As long as you are motivated and want to improve, you can do anything! So get started today...
The platform that connects tutors and students