Chinese is not easy, in fact, it is usually considered very hard for English speakers. There are definitely easier languages to learn. But few offer the same advantages. Here are four reasons everyone should learn Chinese:
Because it is hard.
One reason to learn Chinese is because it is so difficult. Hear me out. Few other languages offer the same range of challenges for English-speaking people. There is an intrinsic value in doing difficult things. They force us to grow, they bring out the best in us.
Some people can lie on the beach and do nothing for their entire life. But they are rare. Most people want a challenge. Most people want to be stretched. Most people want to know the limit of their potential. Chinese is one way of finding that out.
During my first year in China a friend of mine gave me a book entitled 《因为山在哪里》. It is about a photographer who spent some time in the Himalayas taking amazing photos. At the time I could not read a single word of it, not even the title. The pictures were beautiful though. I decided that someday I would be able to read this book. It was a goal I set myself.
Over the years it has become kind of invisible on my bookshelf, but yesterday it caught my eye. I realised that I could read the title. 《因为山在哪里》, the title of the book, is actually a reference to a quote from an Englishman translated into Chinese. It means simply: because the mountain is there.
The quote is from George Mallory, the British explorer, who was responding to the question: why climb Mount Everest? He responded with the three most famous words in mountaineering: “Because it’s there.” Because it’s hard. Because I want to know if I can.
Chinese characters are just cool. There really isn’t anything else to it.
If you learn the traditional characters that they use in Hong Kong and Taiwan you can read ancient texts, and see the genesis of Japanese and Korean writing styles. Even if you learn the simplified characters, like me, you’ll be shocked at how many words you will pickup in other Asian languages.
Chinese is not like English or other western languages. It does not have an alphabet per se. Instead, each character is a tiny little unit of meaning. Some characters are pictographs, others have more metaphorical meanings. Each character represents an idea, not just a sound.
Imagine if the letter ‘D’ was also the universally accepted symbol for ‘cow’. Every word starting with ‘D’ would somehow be literally or figuratively connected to ‘cows’. ‘Dmeat’ would be beef, ‘dfield’ would be a pasture. It sounds crazy but this is similar how Chinese works. Everywhere that you see the character 牛 there is something related to cows. Often this connection is metaphorical, but it’s still there.
Each character is pronounced as one syllable. One syllable words have one character, two syllable words have two characters, and so on. Characters fit together like Lego blocks to form words. New words are created from new combinations of existing characters.
My all time favourite example of this is the Chinese for ‘twerk’: 电臀舞. The three characters translate literally as ‘electric-butt-dance.’ 5000 years of culture have brought us to this point. It’s glorious.
Chinese food and culture
There is not just one type of Chinese food. There is a massive range of different food cultures. There is spicy Hunan food, which is a different kind of spicy to the numbing spice of Sichuan. In the North West there is Xinjiang food, lots of grilled lamb and nut based snacks. There is fresh seafood washed down with local beer, often served in a plastic bag(really), in Qingdao. There is tropical fruit in Hainan, where on every street corner you can get fresh coconut juice. Just pick the coconut you want and they’ll chop it open for you for less than a dollar. Not to mention dim sum and Beijing duck. There’s lots of other regional or ethnic food groups that I haven’t even mentioned.
It’s all delicious, and you can eat vast quantities without getting fat. An important consideration.
Chinese culture is amazingly diverse. Even though the majority of people are Han Chinese, there are 56 different ethnic groups in total. 56! It’s a great place to explore. Mandarin works like a ‘lingua franca’, allowing you to speak to all of them.
Chinese culture is also very old. Officially Chinese culture is 5000 years old. This means there is a huge amount of art and history to be explored. Learning the language lets you see China as China sees itself. The language is infused with lots of legends and stories that you wouldn’t hear otherwise.
Speaking Chinese lets you engage with normal people in their everyday life. Chinese people are generally very friendly and eager to share their culture. Speaking the language opens up a whole new world.
China is one of the world’s largest economies. For the last 20 years it has been the factory of the world. Its status in this regard is beyond question. Every year it becomes more important for business people to learn Chinese.
I know a lot of people will groan and say “but I’ve got a translator, I don’t need to learn Chinese.” It’s true, from a purely transactional point of view. Translators are cheap, certainly cheaper than the time it takes to train senior executive in Chinese. However, when you learn a language you don’t just to learn the language. You learn the culture.
Ask any business person, from a small shop owner to a multi millionaire: business is about relationships. Knowing someone’s culture puts you at a great advantage when it comes to forming business relationships. Even a few words in another language are a kind of compliment to that culture. It shows that you are interested in them.
Chinese is not easy, but that’s exactly why you should learn it. Difficult tasks bring out the best in us, it’s something to strive for.
The rewards for learning Chinese are many. Intellectuals might enjoy the artistry of Chinese characters. Hard-nosed business people might see the massive growth opportunities to be found in China. China is fast becoming the world’s largest consumer economy. For foodies, learning Chinese is a gateway whole new world. The best food is local and cheap, not to be found on any tourist map.