Image: Steve Webel via flickr
On Friday I took my first Chinese class ever, at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Belgrano, Buenos Aires. We were five Argentines, an American expat and myself: asked about our motives for learning the language, most responded with vague references to work possibilities and cultural interest, given the sizeable Chinese population in Argentina and the commercial links between the two countries. Ana, slightly built with iron-grey hair, simply wanted a challenge.
As we exchanged numbers after class before going our separate ways she reflected that she’d certainly got one.
Our teacher was tiny and giggled a lot, demonstrating the tones with dramatic arm gestures and stamping feet, singing the language and basically being exactly what I’d expected.
It reminded me of my brief flirtation with Quechua: a language completely foreign to my ears, with no Romance-language markers or sounds to grab onto and build comprehension around. We won’t be touching the Chinese characters until level 3 (thank heavens!) but I still felt cast adrift in unfamiliar waters.
When I got home I googled “learning mandarin”, wanting some audio lessons to help me wrap my head around pronunciation and the four tones before the next class.
Among the results I turned up a Newsweek article by linguist John McWhorter, English is here to stay. This is the kind of article that has language aficionados up in arms: the general gist being that hey, if you speak English, its not really worth the effort learning another language. The New York Times provides some forceful responses to this general argument in their Room for Debate section: that beyond the cognitive benefits, language learning provides and will continue to provide immeasurable returns in all facets of our globalized lives.
Language fascinates me. I had so much fun learning Spanish – after the initial panic – and struggle to understand expats who live for years in South America without getting beyond the absolutely necessary. Finishing Cien años de soledad on a beach in Peru was one of the most exhilarating academic experiences of my life. (Language geeks are sexy, aren’t they?). The time I invested in the language has brought considerable returns already.
Chinese is a different story. It will require a much greater investment of time to reach a comparable point of fluency, and that point may never be reached. I’m not living in China and have no plans to move there, so I’m denied both the learning facilitation of immersion and the immediate payoffs of a smoother expat life.
There’s a financial cost as well: I took Spanish classes here and there, but largely depended on friends, books, online exercises and lots of practice. I’m fairly sure Chinese is going to be classes all the way, a not inconsiderable financial investment if I’m going to reach proficiency.
But over the last few days the doubts crept in. Could McWhorter be right? I’ve been flirting a bit with Brazilian Portuguese. French also appealed to me. Mandarin went from possibility to decision very quickly. Had I really thought it through properly?
My primary motive was to add a little bling to my CV: I plan to stay in the Latin America region once I graduate and hope to work in development. China has links and trade interests here as it does in any every other part of the world and will be an important partner in regional development into the future.
But then I began the struggle with tones and Mary Anne began trying to scare with me tweets about Mandarin’s difficulty…
And then one morning I opened my eyes and saw my bookshelf, one of its shelves a ragged row of worn spines with Spanish-language titles. Bugger it. The New York Times team were right: it’s worth it, and for so many reasons beyond cold economic benefit.
Updated 31 March: There’s another interesting collection of articles over at Intelligent Life. Start with Which is the best language to learn? and work your way through the related articles on the right.
I may be feeling a bit more confident but I could still use some help – if you know of any Chinese bands, movies, podcasts, TV shows, websites, or other resources pass them on in the comments! I’ll be eternally grateful…