On the benefits of pursuing Chinese Mandarin by Olivia Halsall (freelance journalist, writer & mandarin speaker)

On the benefits of pursuing Chinese Mandarin by Olivia Halsall (freelance journalist, writer & mandarin speaker)


Chinese Mandarin, alternatively known as 普通话 putonghua,is one of the oldest languages in existence. The earliest written corpus on ancient written Chinese records are the Shang dynasty-era Oracle bone inscriptions 甲骨 jiagu, which archaeologists have traced as far back as 1250 BC.

Today, around one in five people on the planet are native Chinese Mandarin speakers. Within mainland China, 160 dialects and 130 ethnic minority languages officially exist, in addition to 7 dialect groups including Northern (Mandarin), Central (Wu, Gan, and Xiang) and Southern (Hakka, Yue, and Min). As such, China’s geographic, ethnic and cultural diversity is seemingly infinite.  

To patch up China’s linguistic fragmentation between its 1.6 billion people, in 2000 Beijing introduced the Law of Universal Language and Character, stating Mandarin as the official language. Facilitated by the increasing ubiquity of Chinese Mandarin within the mainland, the nation’s booming economy as well as Deng Xiao Ping’s opening policies in the last 30 years, today more and more people from beyond China’s borders are able to explore the country through travel, study and work.

UK organisations such as the British Council, Generation China and the Mandarin Excellence Programme have seen young British interest in China grow year upon year. Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK in 2015 aimed to “see more than £30 billion worth of trade and investment deals completed, creating over 3,900 jobs across the UK”.

In 2014, The British Council published an article on why native English speakers can learn Mandarin easily. They do not say it is easy, which it is not. But they do demonstrate how Chinese Mandarin is not as hard as it is made out to be. 

As far as the language itself is concerned, there are 4 different tones to master pronunciation, however familiarising yourself with music, radio and TV shows (or simply living in China) is a fun way to become acquainted with how Chinese Mandarin sounds in real life, opposed to in the textbooks. The characters initially look confusing, but they build upon each other. For example, tree or wood is 木 mu, woods is 林 lin and forest is 森 sen (which also means dark, or gloomy). 

I started learning Chinese Mandarin at the age of 19 as part of my undergraduate studies, with no prior experience in the country, let alone knowing a single word of the language. Based on my own experiences in China – including a one-year exchange programme at Tsinghua University in Beijing, followed by a 7-month spell teaching in Shanghai in amongst many adventurous travel trips, the following points outline the main benefits I have seen from having taken the plunge into Chinese Mandarin.

1. Numerous psychological benefits 

As with taking up any second language, the psychological benefits are in abundance, and whether you start as a toddler or a teen, the benefits persist. Firstly, the onset of dementia is delayed. For monolingual adults, the mean age for the first signs of dementia are visible at 71.4 years, and for bilingual and multilingual adults it is 75.5 years. The results of various studies have been consistent regardless of education and income level, gender, as well as physical health. Second, studies have found that when compared with their monolingual counterparts, bilingual children are better at concentrating and have enhanced multi-tasking abilities. Finally, and this is particularly unique to Chinese Mandarin, scholars begin to see a more creative and pictorial world of language. This is because of the uniqueness of the character writing system. For instance, Chineasy, a project founded by ShaoLan Hsueh is “a ground-breaking method of reading and interpreting Chinese characters for westerners” that breaks characters down into easily recognisable pictures. Once you start seeing how characters are composed, you’ll see them in everything!

2. Profound and long-lasting friendships

Being able to communicate with someone from an entirely different culture to the one in which you were raised is truly amazing. It’s akin to exploring a whole new universe of incredible food, customs, language, mannerisms and perspectives. Many of my Chinese friends were educated in classes of 50+ students, are only children, and were simultaneously raised by both their parents and grandparents. Their childhoods couldn’t have been further from those of my British classmates. 

In addition, as a student in Beijing, it soon became apparent that even socialising in groups was so totally different from in the UK. My Chinese friends and I would meet for a big dinner, chatting over dozens of dishes passed around on a lazy Suzie perched on a round table, and then head over to KTV (karaoke) until the early hours of the morning, singing Britney Spears classics at the top of our lungs. 

Overcoming embarrassing blunders with language is inevitable but makes you more confident in the long run. Learning Chinese Mandarin will truly test your limits, which is great! My Chinese friends have helped my language progress in numerous ways and are always willing to answer my incessant questions about new songs, grammar and understanding news articles. In addition, China attracts some interesting characters. As such, you will befriend people not only from China, but from around the globe. As a student, exploring China with French, British, American and Australian and German friends gave me the opportunity to compare many countries with my own – for good and for bad. 

3. Career benefits

The global market for Chinese Mandarin speakers is becoming unprecedented, and in many different industries. There are many great ways to gain work experience in China whilst simultaneously improving your language skills. To give an example of the education industry … originally, the majority of positions were for English teachers, however there is now a growing demand for science, maths and humanities teachers. A lot of companies will reimburse your flights, provide a legal working visa and health insurance, and in some circumstances your accommodation too. Whether you’re a city person or are looking for some rural peace and quiet – there is something for everyone. To teach in China you aren’t required to know a single word in Chinese Mandarin, (but it really does help)! What’s more, Chinese students hold the British education system in high regard; as such, there are increasing numbers of students looking to be educated here in the UK, too. This provides British Chinese speakers even more opportunities to private tutor, work on residential summer programmes, and consult on school/university applications – all of which are very lucrative. 

In other industries, such as law or banking, having Chinese Mandarin under your belt will not only put you in the prime position to work in Beijing, Shanghai or potentially Singapore and Hong Kong offices, but could also increase your chances of promotion or travel opportunities. Learning Chinese Mandarin shows a good sense of perseverance, patience and commitment, which I guarantee employers will respect. 

4. Traveling made easy 

China is one of the most diverse countries in the world – from hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, to cycling through the rice fields in Guilin, to clambering across the Great Wall in Beijing, to gawping at the views of the Bund in Shanghai with a cocktail in hand. You could travel in China for 2 weeks, 2 years, or 2 decades and still not have experienced enough. The further you travel away from major cities, the less likely you’ll find English-speakers. Even if you have a few Chinese Mandarin words and phrases it will help, but with greater language capabilities comes the luxury of figuring out exactly where to go, knowing what you’re eating, and finding secret destinations only locals know about. Local Chinese people will appreciate you speaking Chinese Mandarin enormously, and even a friendly 你好 hello as you jump into a taxi will likely be received by the standard flabbergasted response of 你中文说得非常好 your Chinese is so good

Now that I’ve exhausted every possible benefit I can think of as to why you should pursue Chinese Mandarin, I feel compelled to provide an alternative argument, but unfortunately, I can’t think of one. Whether you’re reading this as a parent deliberating whether to introduce your toddler or teenager to Chinese Mandarin classes, a recent graduate with no language skills, or a mid-career professional looking forward to retirement – people often forget that Chinese Mandarin can be taken up in small increments. You can do it in your own time and fit it around your personal and professional life, but the more fun you have with it, the faster you’ll progress! 

Everyone learns at their own pace, and this is especially true for Chinese Mandarin. I’ve found that to take on a language like Chinese Mandarin, you need to have a clear goal in mind, and a specific use to apply the language. This can be simply for the fun of it, to travel independently in China, to launch a professional career, or to train as a Chinese chef! Whichever it is, in 2019, there are so many options for young Brits who take the plunge, learn Chinese Mandarin and engage with China … so why do you want to learn Chinese Mandarin? 

- Olivia A. Halsall