July 31, 2013, by Tony Hong

Nǐhǎo Shìjiè: Hello World

By Lucy Kirkup,

Studying Modern Languages with Business at the University of Nottinham UK.

When Brits travel abroad the stereotype is that they are pretty lazy when it comes to learning languages. I must admit that this generalisation has some truth to it. However, being a student of languages myself, I despair when I think of the perception that the British are either bad at languages, simply lazy, or both. Personally, I have thoroughly loved learning Mandarin for the two weeks I have spent in Ningbo. The pure musicality of this beautiful language greatly intrigues me. It is unlike any European language and definitely not a language one can just ‘pick up’ as you wander through the streets. The four tones means that you have to listen very intently to each syllable and pronunciation mistakes can easily be made. Being musical definitely helps in learning Mandarin so as to avoid confusing words like shuìjiào 睡觉(sleep) and shuǐjiǎo 水饺 (dumplings) for example.

Many English people rest on their laurels and don’t attempt to learn languages because they rely on the fact that English is widely spoken. However, the world is changing. Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world with the Chinese population making up around one fifth of the world’s population.  My brother started learning Chinese at middle school when we lived in New York and was immediately taken by this pictographic language and eventually went on to study Mandarin at university. This October he will move to Beijing to work for a multi-national company. Just two weeks ago my family and I were in one of our favourite Chinese restaurants and my brother proceeded to order in Mandarin, at which point the waiter recoiled in astonishment. Words cannot begin to express the pride I feel when I hear him speak one of the world’s most difficult languages almost fluently. If you could not see him you would think he was Chinese himself. That is the level of fluency any student of modern languages wishes to reach.

As a result of China’s increasingly significant position in the world we can clearly see the importance of Mandarin. The fact that China’s economy is ninety times bigger than when Deng Xiaoping started the economic reforms in 1978 is hard to comprehend. Similarly impressive is that China is the most popular choice for foreign direct investment of all the developing countries. The rapidity at which China is becoming a world economic power contrasts starkly to the decades of global isolation for the country before the Opium War of the nineteenth century. This bodes the question; what can we learn from China?  And further emphasises the strategic importance of studying Mandarin as having this language would open the door to many exciting career opportunities in the business and government sectors.

China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008 have both contributed to the growing popularity of Mandarin as a subject at university. The University of Nottingham, Ningbo is the first Sino-foreign University in China and is paving the way for a new breed of students who can adapt easily to new cultures. Promotion of Chinese language and culture was also displayed in the launching of the Nottingham Confucius Institute in 2007. These two weeks in Ningbo have inspired me to keep up my Mandarin so that when I come to visit my brother I can communicate with the locals instead of merely relying on him. These last two weeks were so brilliant that I am even considering doing a Masters here. It is remarkable the speed at which one can fall in love with China and its culture. I believe that learning Mandarin can help avoid Orientalism, a term which Edward Said used to describe the patronising attitude of the West towards the East and that just because a language is difficult doesn’t mean we should shy away from learning it. Rather, we should relish such a challenge.

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