Language Learning in the 21st Century: Part III – Chinese As the Language of the Future

By Michael Hurwitz

[Note: This series is being brought to you by ETCJ associate editor Lynn Zimmerman. See Part I: “Technology Is a Game Changer” and Part II: “Technology Makes English the Global Language.” -Editor]

It’s an oft-discussed topic in the media that Chinese, specifically the Mandarin Chinese form that has become the official language of Mainland China, is the “language of the future.” This might sound a bit odd because Chinese is in fact one of the oldest languages in the world, but it’s pretty irrefutable that it’s also one of the fastest-rising languages in terms of global prominence. Learning to speak, read and write Chinese is becoming increasingly popular around the world, but as such an old and unusual language, Chinese presents a lot of problems for learners. Technology, however, is beginning to alleviate this on many fronts.

Chinese is a unique language and can be very difficult for Westerners who are native Romance or Germanic language speakers. Even Japanese speakers, whose native language has a lot in common with Mandarin (including some characters), can struggle mightily with learning it. That’s part of why it helps to approach Mandarin more methodically and tactically than one might a language that’s closer to their native tongue. For instance, while exposure and listening practice are still very important, it’s much more difficult to simply “pick up” Chinese than it would be to pick up Spanish for, say, a native English or French speaker. Much of this has to do with Mandarin’s tonal nature, with different pronunciations of the same syllable taking on (often wildly) different meanings. Without careful instruction and practice in differentiating the five tones, it’s tough to get going in the learning process. This hurdle is especially problematic for adult learners not only because they’ve spent decades in non-tonal or semi-tonal language environments but because they often don’t have the big blocks of time necessary to devote to language learning.

It’s crucial to carefully plan your Chinese study no matter what your learning style is. In selecting courses and materials for self-study and for group learning, make sure that learning experiences are customizable and designed to fit into your schedule. Obviously this is helpful for those learning any language, but it is especially important with Mandarin Chinese.

Technology, fortunately, has alleviated some of this difficulty, with software such as Skritter and Anki helping to teach character writing via advanced handwriting recognition and smart software. One of the biggest gifts that technology has given language learners, however, is convenience. It removes constricting elements such as fixed times and locations for learning. Some of the devices are quite simple, for example, CDs or MP3 players as well as more complex tech like RSS feeds and high speed mobile data connections. This technology has been around since the first cassette player was installed in a car, but newer innovations takes learning to a different level.

It’s now possible to get instant feedback on your language progress via your mobile phone on your lunchbreak, review flashcards in detail on a tablet while riding the bus, or even talk via Skype or phone with a native language teacher across the world as you drive to work (because Mandarin is a tonal language, repeated speaking and pronunciation practice are particularly important). The possibilities are almost limitless, with the only obstacle being one’s desire and motivation to learn. As Chinese becomes a more popular foreign language study choice around the world, it will certainly be exciting to see more technology pop up to help people learn Chinese!

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