Now Might Be a Good Time to Learn Mandarin Chinese

Why might now be a good time to learn Mandarin Chinese?

  1. We may be able to directly and indirectly contribute to world peace.
    Peace in any relationship – whether personal or international – depends upon being able to talk. Given current tensions between the U.S. and China, we, literally, need to speak each other’s language to gain deep, mutual understanding of each other’s needs and wants, feelings and thoughts.
  2. We can share the responsibility for communicating.
    According to research company Ethnologue, languages with the most native speakers in the world, in order, are Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, then English. Of languages with the most speakers, English is first, followed closely by Mandarin Chinese, then by Hindi. According to Wikipedia, 10 million people in China have acquired English as a second language. In contrast, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people in the U.S. are studying Mandarin Chinese.
  3. Logic suggests that, to solve the globe’s main problems, we need to speak the globe’s main languages.

I turn 62 at the end of this month. I have become aware that now might be a particularly good time for older adults to learn Mandarin Chinese. Why?

  1. We join the team.
    Perhaps, in human history, now is not the time for older adults to retire. Among the acquisition difficulty rankings of languages by the U.S. Department of State, Mandarin Chinese is ranked as a Category IV language, among the very hardest to learn. Although human bodies normally and naturally lose functioning with age, our brains gain complex cognitive abilities, unless afflicted with neurocognitive diseases. Might our mature brains now be optimally wired for efficient and effective learning? Might our mature brains be untapped resources to assist scholars, scientists, policy-makers, and members of our communities? Might now be the time for us to take this challenging task on – in service to all of us, for the sake of all of us?
  2. We may be putting our mature human brains to optimal use.
    The findings of neuroscience contradict the myth that second language learning is ineffectual in adulthood. In fact, with assistance with intermittent, short-term memory challenges, the intricately and deeply networked mature adult human brain may be particularly primed for second language acquisition.
  3. Learning Mandarin Chinese may be a way to covertly protest and change aging in the U.S.
    The process of aging and dying in the U.S. has become so lonely and bleak that guides like this one and this one have to be written about how to deal with it all. The primary challenges? Loss of purpose and meaning, cognitive decline, and social isolation. Triumphantly, learning Mandarin Chinese has no less than world peace as its mission, neuroscience backs it as a potentially enhancing, improving, even restorative cognitive endeavor, and connection with instructors and people with whom to practice are available online, 24-7.

Want to experiment with seeing if learning Mandarin Chinese might be a fit for you?

Through 5 months of literature reviews of research on second language acquisition, extensive testing of apps and materials, and difficult trial-and-error learning, these are the steps and resources I suggest:

  1. Download and use the Hello Chinese app. Early learning features are free; premium subscriptions start at $8.99 per month. Hello Chinese is beautiful and beautifully coded, offers enough explanation to keep moving but not too much to get discouraged, and blends learning with gamification in engaging and appealing ways.
  2. Download and use the Skritter app to become familiar with Chinese characters.
  3. Watch some episodes of Happy Chinese on YouTube.
  4. Listen to some episodes of the You Can Learn Chinese podcast.
  5. Once you know what “Nǐ hǎo” is, and way before you feel ready, do this anyway: Listen to their video introductions, make a selection, and book a session with one of the nearly 800 online teachers of Mandarin Chinese on italki.

(To select teachers on italki, I begin by filtering the search results through “Availability.” I am an early riser and take a break around 1:00 PM. So I look for teachers available for 5:00 AM and 1:00 PM sessions. italki makes this easy by displaying results filtered through the user’s time zone. Before your session on italki, you’ll have the opportunity to message your teacher that you’re a beginner.)

5. Savor the heart-pounding, nerve-wracking awe and excitement of waiting to attempt to speak another language with a complete stranger in another part of the world. When your instructor’s face appears on the screen, say, “Nǐ hǎo” and see what happens after that.

If you have an experience similar to mine, the first teacher wasn’t exactly a fit but the longing to learn Mandarin Chinese began. And, the belief that it was doable began as well.

Here’s a video of my progress after 4 months of independent effort supported, all online, by my italki teachers, my local teacher, members of our Mandarin Chinese Conversation Club, and fellow learners on My Language Exchange. I’m very excited to begin to supplement my work through formal instruction with AllSet Learning, founded by John Pasden, co-host of the You Can Learn Chinese podcast, and co-author, with Jared Turner, of the Mandarin Companion graded reader series.

If you find the video somewhat excruciating to listen to and watch, that’s okay, ’cause I do, too. I don’t speak very well yet! I laugh near the start because I realize the teacher has asked me about the weather and I replied with a date. Mostly I feel joy, however. I, too, started with “Nǐ hǎo.”

Please do contact me if you have any ideas, suggestions or feedback on learning Mandarin Chinese.

Updated 12/13/20

I am a beginning student of Mandarin Chinese and also a counselor, able to provide services only to residents of Virginia, U.S.A. This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.