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What is Language?
Language is one of the ways we communicate with other human beings
What is communication? It is any means of passing information

Great, let's talk...

Q. Do we all agree that language is one form of communication?
A. I guess so, as I cannot think of any language that does not involve some form of communication

OK, lets turn this around...
Q. Does anyone agree that communication is a form of any known language?
A. No, because communication includes other things, like gestures and eye-contact

Very Good!
Now lets look at any arbitrarily chosen person - perhaps myself?
I know a very great deal about English. This not only includes various versions of the spoken tongue throughout UK, and other parts of the world. I also understand many hidden meanings in any group of English words, and as applied by the inferences given in the way a person says them, and their demeanour. I also know idioms and slang + how to write them. Without using words I can communicate thoughts and feelings to others, simply by using facial expressions and body language

Statisticians will relate how maybe at best, only 17% of all inter-human communication is via spoken (or Written) languages. The rest comes from our senses and perceptions

For instance, I am a severely linguistically challenged Brit. After living in Mainland Canton for 6-years, I maybe have the language abilities of a 3-year-old. However, I know all the important words to function as an interesting and entertaining adult. Well, I use words in an adult sense, and I choose which words and phrases are most important for me to learn = the first one was '1 beer please'. However, I managed this on my first night in China without any knowledge of Mandarin, Cantonese, or whatever they were speaking. It was irrelevant! I simply pointed at a bottle of beer on another table, and the waitress went and got one for me. Simple!

I also obtained several packets of local cigarettes (My legal prerogative), dishes of foods (?), and made long-lasting friends. 3 are still in my mobile and email address book, and I wear one's gifted Jade pendant every day. How come?

Only a maximum of 17% of Human Language is Verbal or Written

And this is why I have laboured the point that 'Your smile is your biggest asset - use it generously'
In the case above I was using pointing and mime + smiling a lot. The staff and customers all found it quite entertaining, as did I

Learning a Language

The language that you are taught has to be relevant to the circumstances and way you will use it.

At school I endured 4-years of learning billions of French irregular verbs. At the end of it all I still couldn't hold a simple conversation with anyone - but my written grammar was excellent. How futile! Years later I spent a week touring around Northern France. They didn't speak French there, they spoke Breton. Therefore what French I was taught at school has been totally irrelevant during the rest of my life. However, one term of Holiday conversational Spanish would have been very useful to me!

In the West I believe we spend far too much time focusing on grammar, and not enough on actually speaking a language properly. At school we also teach our children the wrong languages for the global world they will mature into. It is similar with learning Chinese. Far too many educationalists and phrasebooks concentrate on polite and long sentences rendered in excellent grammar. You can try, but will not be understood I am sure. For instance: why do you need to know the Chinese conversation for making a hotel reservation? You will already have done this in order to get your Chinese visa! You are far better to learn a few simple words to start, and use them to accompany your gestures and mime. This works in real life. This is why I have written '10 Word Cantonese'.

Regarding Chinese languages, the first thing you need to decide is which one of them to learn. You should normally choose Mandarin, which is the official language of China, and is taught in all Chinese schools. Cantonese is the only other given full language status by Beijing. Every city and region will have its own dialect of course, so if you are planning to live in Shanghai or XinJiang Uigher Autonomous Region, you may consider their local dialects to be more useful on a daily level?

When choosing which language to learn, it is also very important to pick one that you can pronounce. For instance, Mandarin is spoken using the roof and back of the mouth, has sharp choppy sounds, and is not compatible with most Western languages. By contrast, Cantonese is spoken from the front of the mouth and uses more rounded sounds which are similar to many Western languages.

If you can pronounce the number 2 correctly in Mandarin (e'ur), then this language should be ok for you. If you cannot get anywhere near the sound, then choose Cantonese or one of the many dialects. Most Westerners say that Cantonese is far easier to pronounce correctly, even in spite of the number of tones used (9). Similarly, if you cannot say 'beer' correctly in Cantonese (bAi d'zhao), then choose Mandarin (Pe Jew). This is your choice!

So lets say that after several years you become as fluent as a native speaker in one of the Chinese languages - this means that you have mastered just 17% of the communication skills necessary to be fully understood in China. Fortunately, many of the remaining skills required are very similar to the ones we already know - such as smiling and laughing. Others are far more complex or very different (to the point of being obverse), and reflect the society and culture

Even if you are a fluent speaker of Chinese, you may easily give offence if you use Chinese equivalents of English phrases. For Example, saying 'Hello, how are you' is considered a normal form of polite introduction in most Western countries. In China this is considered to be quite rude and a personal affront. This should only be used with very close friends. The Chinese would always say 'Hello, have you eaten (rice) today?'. This is polite for them.

So what is the point of this page?

It is designed to make you think about language. To make you consider what your goal is, and how to best get there.

Lets reconsider. There is absolutely no point in you learning the most polite and grammatically correct forms of Mandarin - if it is beyond your verbal skills to actually make the correct sounds. Nobody will understand you!

There is no point is learning Shanghainese if you live in Canton or Tibet. Nobody will understand you!

Conversely, there is a lot to be said for learning the local language or Mandarin - as spoken on the streets where you live

Virtually all Chinese will respect you greatly if you try and speak their language, no matter how badly. The trick is to make it fun - like a game. Learn to articulate your words by using a lot of gestures - hold up three fingers when you use the number 3. Learn to mine correctly - Chinese toilets are a hole in the ground. Mime by squatting. In Beijing I once mimed a man attending a urinal. The manageress was called, and I was quoted 150 RMB! ($17)

So in summary, you need to consider the purpose of learning a language. If it is simply to gain a qualification in a language you will never use in real life, then it really doesn't matter much which one you choose. If you need it for a planned holiday or business trip, then ensure the course is tailored for your specific objectives and location. If you need to know a language because you plan to live in the country, then consider very carefully which language suits your individual needs best, and if you can make the sounds required correctly?

Your smile is your biggest resource, use it generously :-)
Related Pages: English Salon
This information is as supplied by the Chinese Embassy in UK, as dated 20th June 2008, and/or other reliable sources. Please check this information yourself as it may alter without notice, and whilst we try our best to ensure it is correct, please do not hold us responsible for any errors - this is intended as a simple guide only
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