Chinese courses: Learn one of the world’s most widely spoken languages

By Frank Bolger - Last update

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Want to learn Chinese? In April 2017 the Department of Education announced that school students will soon be able to take Chinese as a Leaving Cert subject. This is a wise move. Chinese is likely to be in demand by Irish and multinational businesses in the coming decades.

China represents 20 per cent of the world’s population. As a result, the Irish government has identified China as an enormous market for its exports, particularly in the food sector.

However, it is important to understand China’s language and culture to build business relationships.

About Chinese

Chinese is not a language but a series of related language varieties comprising seven main dialects. These are Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Wu, Min, Xiang, and Gan.

Mandarin is the most popular variety. It’s spoken in mainland China and Taiwan. Cantonese is the most common language in Hong Kong and among overseas Chinese communities. About one-fifth of the world’s population (around 1. 2 billion people) speak some variety of Chinese as their native language.

About 92 per cent of the total Chinese population are Han Chinese. What’s more, around two-thirds of the Han population are native Mandarin speakers. Mandarin Chinese is the language of communication in government, media and education. As a result, the vast majority of young and middle-aged people on Mainland China use and understand Mandarin. It is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

What does it involve?

Because it is such a widely spoken dialect, most part-time Chinese courses teach Mandarin. But what does learning the language actually entail?

As most people will know, Mandarin has its own writing system. This consists of around 80,000 characters known as Hanzi. However, most educated Chinese people will know about 4,000 characters.

This writing system has given weight to the notion that learning Mandarin is difficult. The truth is that it is tricky, but it is easier than you may think. The sounds and tones of the language are also different to English. Furthermore, pronouncing the same word with a different inflection can produce vastly (and sometimes catastrophically!) different meanings. As a matter of fact, many European languages have more complicated grammar systems.

Most basic Mandarin courses teach vocabulary. This includes useful expressions for greetings and introductions, asking for directions, shopping, or making appointments. Another important aspect is learning about the Chinese culture and traditions. This may include topics such as Chinese table manners or business culture.

Intermediate-level Chinese language courses help participants improve their pronunciation and grammar skills. In addition, these increase vocabulary and Hanzi character recognition. At this level, students will develop the language skills to describe people, places or events. They will also develop a deeper understanding of Chinese culture.

Students who have completed an advanced course should be able to recognise around 800 characters. They will also have approximately 900 to 1000 words. This means that these students will be capable of engaging in relatively complex conversations in professional and social situations.

 What comes next?

Mandarin speakers generally pursue careers in teaching, entrepreneurship and business.

At a glance

Beginner’s Chinese language courses run for between 10 and 24 weeks. Advanced-level Chinese language classes generally run for around 14 weeks.

Frank Bolger

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