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Seven Reasons Chinese is Becoming Easier to Learn


The study of Chinese as a second language is exploding around the globe, yet few Westerners today read, write and speak Chinese fluently. No wonder native speakers often say, with a certain satisfaction, their language is tai nan xue, "too hard to learn."

I'm one of those few. Living in China over 25 years, my fluent Chinese has opened many doors, primarily due to this deeply held belief.

Three years ago, I retired from business management to work full time on the questions: why do most students fail at learning Chinese, and what can I do about it? My conclusion is that Chinese is not "hard to learn", but it is nearly impossible to teach. My response has been to join a small army of people working independently to develop methods to reinvent the teaching of Chinese.

Based on my observation of these new methods and current trends, I predict that within 15 years the notion that Chinese is "too hard" will become obsolete. This will pave the way for millions of foreigners to become truly fluent in Chinese, just as multitudes master English as a second language today.

You or someone you know may be too intimidated to try Chinese or perhaps struggled and gave up. I say: do start (or start up again) and don't quit. You don't need to be brilliant to learn Chinese well, and you will be well rewarded for doing so.

Let me briefly describe seven reasons why Chinese is getting easier to learn. Watch this space for future posts with more detail.

More role models are boosting students' confidence.

When I was studying at Beijing Normal University, an American student from the previous year had come to visit some of the staff. He was speaking with such animation, I just stopped to watch and listen. That was the "aha" moment I knew it could be done. Knowing Chinese could be conquered gave me the necessary confidence to study with determination.

The rewards for learning Chinese have never been greater.

Steady, rapid growth in China's economy over the last 20 years has given rise to enormous business and ministry/NGO opportunities throughout Greater China, and in other countries where Chinese people and companies are venturing. These are creating a great number of unfilled jobs which require native English speakers with fluent Chinese.

Learning Chinese has always given students a way to appreciate Tang dynasty poetry, but now they can absorb news, movies, on-line encyclopedias and other media which are quickly becoming more relevant to the rest of the world. They are also gaining access to a growing number of accomplished Chinese people who do not speak English.

Ways to practice Chinese are multiplying.

More foreigners than ever are studying Chinese in China, but the internet has made it possible for students of Chinese to experience China without having to travel there. Watch video clips on youku.com, China's youtube, scan the news, listen to pop music, explore chatrooms, make on-line pen pals, and search out the answer to questions. Also, it is no longer unusual to meet native Chinese speakers in your hometown.

Self-study tools are everywhere.

Computers make it easy to type Chinese from your first lesson before your handwriting catches up. There are an enormous and growing number of apps, free and paid, on the Apple app store, including my "Laokang Tone Trainer," but also many web-based tools, such as skritter.com and chinesepod.com. There are a tremendous number of active bloggers, like Albert Wolfe at laowaichinese.net, sharing what worked for them along with many valuable and entertaining insights into the process from the learner's point of view.

Assessment tools are proliferating.

Lack of accurate assessment is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to effective Chinese teaching. No test is perfect, but the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), revised in 2009, is emerging as a workable standard, akin to TOEFL for learners of English as a second language. It is becoming available in more and more locations throughout the world. With six levels it is useful for beginning as well as advanced students.

My own work has been focused on assessment of three crucial skills: romanization (pinyin), tones and character components. The first two are available as free downloads on the Apple app store. These tests are designed for students of all levels to track their progress in these areas.

The field of Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) is advancing.

Teachers, researchers and publishers are hard at work. Many articles, books and new curriculum are being published every year. Groups such as the Chinese Language Teachers Association hold workshops and conferences with presentations on topics such as: "Assessment Tools to Help Teach Chinese Tones and Prevent their Regular Ruin." China's Ministry of Education, through the Hanban (Confucius Institute), in addition to administering the HSK, is actively promoting Chinese as a second language and developing teaching standards and materials.

More successful students are boosting teachers' confidence.

Historically only a small minority of students studying Chinese were good enough to make their teachers proud. As that percentage grows, it raises teacher expectations.

Living in China, locals I meet often remark "you sound like Dashan (Mark Rowswell, a Canadian who became famous performing on Chinese television over the years)". They know a token few foreigners master Chinese, but they assume those few must be exceptionally talented. The tide is turning as people are exposed more and more to fluent foreigners. Soon it will be "normal" for foreigners to speak Chinese, and teachers will expect their students to succeed.

All these factors add up to much more Chinese teaching going on, which is leading to greater accumulated wisdom. This is making Chinese easier to teach and easier to learn. Therefore, expect to meet more and more foreigners with excellent Chinese. I hope you or someone you know will be one of them.

Image credit: Norman Tsai, via Flickr

Paul Condrell

Paul Condrell, whose Chinese name is Kang Baole 康保乐, grew up in Washington, D.C., and has lived in China since 1988. He is founder and chairman of consumer products retailer 小康之家 xiaokang.com.He is developing apps, under the "Laokang" brand, for Apple iOS devices to help students master Chinese. He teaches... View Full Bio