New Year's Resolution: Study Chinese

How's this for a New Year's resolution? Study Chinese.

In 2011, it might just be better for you than exercising and losing weight! Plus, you'll be in good company: Another person studying Chinese this year is Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Time's Person of the Year.

You already know all the reasons why: world's most widely spoken language, world's second biggest economy, huge market, great business opportunities, looks good on the resume. China is where the most jobs are being created. China is growing far faster than the U.S. You may even have a neighbor or colleague from China. In this new decade, China seems to be The Future.

So it makes sense to study Chinese.

But you've probably also heard that it's a damned difficult language to learn. I can vouch for that. I started studying Mandarin when I was 22, way past the ideal age for picking up languages the natural way. I had studied French, German, and Spanish, and I can tell you: Chinese is light years harder.

For me, the toughest part was the tones. Every syllable in Chinese must be spoken with a precise intonation or it means something totally different. "Mom" can sound like "horse" if you say it slightly wrong. "Study" can sound like "snow". "Ugly" can sound like "stinky". It's a minefield.

The good news: Chinese grammar is easy. Subject-verb-object. "I eat meat." No tenses. No masculine and feminine forms. (Even 'he' and 'she' sound the same, ta.)

But there's another hurdle: the writing. Chinese is one of the few languages in the world that doesn't use phonetics. So each time you learn a new word, you have to learn how to pronounce it, then memorize how to write it as well. To be fully literate, you need to know at least 3,000 Chinese characters. After studying Chinese for four years, I still could barely comprehend newspaper articles; after studying Spanish for six months, I could read a novel.

Chinese is so difficult that most Americans who start to study it will never be fluent in it. So why bother trying?

First, so you can pronounce the names of people and places. In the first few days of Chinese lessons, you will learn how they pronounce x and q and zh and those other quirky letter combinations. If your new co-worker is Xu Xiuqing, you'll be able to say her name correctly the first time -- and figure out that her last name is Xu. If your travel itinerary takes you to Xi'an or Guangzhou, you'll be able to pronounce those place names, too. Maybe not with the right tones, but a lot closer than if you had never studied Chinese. And it would be wonderful if all newscasters, at least, could pronounce 'Beijing' with a hard j as in Joe, instead of trying to make it sound French.

Second, you'll gain some insight into the Chinese mind and Chinese culture. The word for "next" is the same as the word for "down" -- perhaps because Chinese culture reached its zenith long ago. The word for "fun" translates as "hot and noisy" -- which is not my idea of fun! And when Chinese people say "I" they point to their face, not their chest. The more Chinese language you learn, the deeper your knowledge will grow about a culture very different from ours.

Third, language learning helps to overcome cultural ignorance and fear. Misperceptions about China abound, and I've found that even highly educated people spout stereotypes about "the Chinese." Even knowing the difference between zhongguoren (Chinese citizen) and hanren (ethnic Chinese) is a good start to understanding the Chinese government's policy on Tibet. Studying China's language and culture -- and history and government -- will help to clarify why China shouldn't be viewed as a big bogeyman.

Many young people get this. The number of Americans studying abroad in China is on the rise, and thousands of young graduates are living and working in China. College Chinese classes, once filled with Chinese-Americans, now attract many white and black students. In some cities, schools offer language immersion programs in Mandarin for little kids. Often, parents are pushing their schools to offer Chinese, to give their children an edge in the job market. Many American teachers have gone to China for training, and China is recruiting and funding "guest teachers" to jump-start language programs in the U.S.

Still, despite the surge of interest in Chinese, the numbers are still minuscule. About 4 percent of U.S. middle and high schools offer Chinese, according to a recently released survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics, up from only 1 percent since 1997. But that's about the same as the number of schools teaching Italian. And 93 percent of all U.S. secondary schools offer Spanish. In 2010, more than 6,000 American students took the Advanced Placement exam in Chinese -- a 25 percent jump from last year. But that's tiny compared to the 118,000 who took the Spanish language AP exam.

The number of Americans studying in China jumped 19 percent in 2007-08 and 4 percent in 2008-09. But last year's total, more than 13,000, represents only 5 percent of all Americans studying abroad. And it is dwarfed by the number of Chinese students in the United States: 128,000 in 2009-2010, up 30 percent from the previous year.

These lopsided numbers have to end. We need to stop thinking of Chinese as an "alternative" or "specialized" language. China has entered the world. Now the world needs to enter China.
The change starts with you, in 2011. Go for it!

Dori Jones Yang's novel, Daughter of Xanadu, will be published Jan. 11, 2011 by Random House.