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How long would it take to learn Chinese?
Thread poster: bangersandmash
May 13, 2012

Hello everyone,

First, a brief background summary: I was born and brought up in England, graduated with a Bachelor of Music (Hons) in 2008, and then in 2010 became a citizen of, and moved to, New Zealand, where I have been doing live transcription of Court hearings (a job I dearly love) ever since. While I was at university I taught myself a little bit of Cantonese, and joined a meetup group to practise. I didn't have a lot of time for this, so I ended up with just enough to have a halting conversation with a stranger, but I loved it and sincerely miss it now. There's something very addictive and delightful about a tonal language - probably because I'm a classically-trained musician (violin and singing).

Anyway, the point is I've been considering learning Chinese seriously, with a long-term goal of interpreting. I have no illusions as to how hard this would be: the reality is I'd have to learn characters, learn Mandarin formally, spend a while living in a Chinese-speaking country or city until my competence was up to scratch, and then worry about getting a degree in translation/interpreting. On top of this, I am 28, but on the upside I am good with words and language and have a reasonable ear.

There is no way I'm going to spend any time in Mainland China. Sorry, but for health reasons it's out of the question. That leads me to Hong Kong. Is this a reasonable possibility? HKU's Chinese Language department teaches these courses (two years each)
http://web.chinese.hku.hk/putonghua%20and%20cantonese/c2.html
Even with the ability at the end to write 400 character essays, that is hardly going to be enough to justify a degree in translation. It probably wouldn't be enough to even do a degree there, but it's better than the local courses here in New Zealand.

In all honesty, I am worried about the time and money. If I went to Hong Kong, then I would be forced to use the language every day on the street, and certainly Cantonese if I wanted any kind of a social life. Here, I'd have no incentive to use it outside Uni as there are few Chinese in Wellington and nothing social like the meetup groups I went to back in London. However, if I went to Hong Kong, I'd have to have a much bigger student loan than normal and probably a grant or two so I could afford accomodation and food and stuff. Is there any feasible way I could take this route? Is this idea even remotely realistic?

I'm guessing it would take me somewhere around the 10 year mark. My assumption is that I'd have to take both Cantonese (for my sanity) and Mandarin (for my career), plus a Chinese language and literature degree (at HKU this is taught wholly in Cantonese), and if I got that far, a translation degree (at HKU this is taught partially in English and partly in Mandarin.) At least by the end of two degrees I could get a permanant ID card for Hong Kong and work there without worrying about a visa.

What I'm not sure sure about is how long it would take me to become fluent enough at the language to be able to handle a degree taught exclusively in Mandarin/Cantonese, never mind good enough to consider an interpreting job. I'm not afraid to put in the hard graft to get there, as it is a a job which fits my skills better than some, but there's no point committing myself to something which is economically unfeasible.

So, at the end of this mini essay, I have three questions:

1) Is it realistic?
2) Is it worth it?
3) How long could it take?


 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:10
Hebrew to English
Are you complicating things? May 13, 2012

Do you really need to learn TWO languages??(Cantonese and Mandarin). Learning one of these is hard enough, and from what I understand, it's not like they are two dialects of a single language group, they are totally divergent languages (in spoken form).

I don't mean to pry, but what health reasons could there be to prevent you moving to mainland China but don't stop you from moving to New Zealand and Hong Kong?

In all honesty, I am worried about the time and money. If I went to Hong Kong, then I would be forced to use the language every day on the street


I'm not so sure about this. I've got friends who were born and raised in Hong Kong, and they can't speak a word of Cantonese, only English. Unlike mainland China (which I've been to), I think Hong Kong is still a place where it's possible to get by on English.

As for the time and money...Unfortunately, languages demand a sacrifice. That sacrifice is usually time and/or money. Time is a constant, you'll definitely have to make peace with the fact that it's going to take a long time - but it seems you already have and you seem to have a realistic understanding of the timescales involved. Money - it's going to cost some money, somewhere along the line....the only advice I can give here is to shop around, there may be cheaper alternatives elsewhere (and places which offer you the ability to work at the same time as study).

Being able to follow and participate in graduate/post-graduate study at university in another language demands extremely high proficiency in my opinion.

To clarify:
Do you not intend on using Cantonese in your future translation/interpreting career? And is there something about Mandarin that doesn't appeal to you?
(These are just vibes I'm getting from your post)

On these points:
Given your concerns about time, money & the economics of the situation:
It might not be worth the investment of time and money learning an additional language if you are only learning it for personal gratification, if at the same time, you are also learning another 'difficult' language which you intend on using for a future career.
(Under 'normal' circumstances I wouldn't think/recommend this, I only mention it here as every additional language saps time, money and energy - and if you are trying to economize - the first thing you should ask is, do you REALLY need the additional language?)

In addition, you should think long and hard about which language (Cantonese/Mandarin) you really want to invest in. Your preference for Cantonese shines through, added to the fact that learning Mandarin might be made even more difficult by your reluctance to spend any time in mainland China. Your energies may be more wisely funneled into just Cantonese. (You can still have a career with Cantonese).

So:
1) Is it realistic? Yes, but I think you need to tweak a few ideas...
2) Is it worthwhile? Only you can answer that.
3) How long? Your timescales seem realistic to me.

Hope this helps, other people will also give you their 2 cents, and there will be people better qualified to comment on the specifics of Chinese, who will surely be along too........




[Edited at 2012-05-13 08:40 GMT]


 

Alison Sparks  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:10
French to English
+ ...
How long is a piece of string May 13, 2012

I grew up in HK and left in 1974 so my information may be rather dated. However, if the HKU courses are still similar, I think you can only learn the written language if you study Mandarin. As I recall, the written language is the same for all dialects of Chinese, whereas the spoken versions are so different that communication can be tricky between them.

I only ever mastered the basics of Cantonese (and how to swear), despite hearing it from the age of 6 onwards. My pronunciation is still good (like you a background in music - violin and singing) but my vocab now non-existent. Most people spoke English, and there was a sort of cultural thing which meant that Chinese people who spoke English as well were reluctant to speak Cantonese to you.

My father had to pass certain exams in order to have a permanent contract with the HK Govt. He studied with a tutor and used a book based course referred to as 'Omelia'. I don't know if that still exists, but after three years he had passed part 3 - the highest level I think. After 5 years he was often mistaken for a native speaker.

I suspect that you may find it hard to get enough work interpreting just in Cantonese, as even then there were so many Chinese who spoke excellent English, and I'm sure this is still the case. Whereas translating might generate more work, but then you have to do the written work. I vaguely remember hearing that you need a basic vocabulary of 8000 characters just to be able to read simple texts.

Perhaps our ProZ colleague Phil Hand might be able to give you better advice.

As Ty says, only you can really decide if the investment of time and money is worthwhile.

Good luck anyway.


 

bangersandmash
TOPIC STARTER
Answering your questions May 13, 2012

Thanks for your kind comments! Here are some answers to your questions:

People find it difficult to believe when I say this, but Cantonese is easier for me. I found it much more natural in my mouth, because there are fewer soft sounds. The larger number of tones makes it sound prettier to me as well, because there is more variety in pitch.

I have mild asthma. The air pollution in mainland China is worrying. My cousin spent two years there, started off healthy and came back with bronchitis. The air in Hong Kong is still polluted, but nowhere near as bad. In New Zealand, the air is so clean that I've had only one day off sick in two years of work - a personal record. London (where I am from) seems to be somewhere between New Zealand and Hong Kong from what I have read. To clarify: I'd be ok for a week or two, but no longer than that.

I get the impression that Ty thinks I am stingy. I'm not. I know very well that anything worth doing costs time and money, but in the case of studying in Hong Kong, I have to prove that I won't be a burden to the state, and doing that for 7 years straight may be difficult, as I'll be going all that time with little work. The immigration rules for study visas allow some flexibility for working during the period of study, but even so, that plus a summer job in NZ wouldn't earn me much. I'll do a bit more homework and see if there is a better compromise.

As for the Cantonese v Mandarin thing, it's a hard choice. In an ideal world I'd study Cantonese until I was good enough, then do further study to become an interpreter. In reality, as Alison said, it's very hard to do this without encountering Mandarin somewhere along the line, and I, too, have heard the stories of Hong Kongers not wanting to speak Cantonese with the white foreigners. To an extent I understand this - badly spoken English is hard to listen to, but this seems to happen regardless of the white man's skill level. Maybe i was naive in this regard. Yes, of course I would use Cantonese in my interpreting career if I could. CUHK does degrees with English as the usual medium of instruction.

Mandarin itself isn't a bad language to learn, from what I understand. Currently, there is a certain amount of demand for interpreters of Cantonese or Mandarin in New Zealand. What the situation would be like 10 years down the line I cannot say. Overall, though, the impression I get is that proficiency in either language would be good on my CV if I never made it to being an interpreter and had to do something else.

[Edited at 2012-05-13 13:16 GMT]


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 04:10
Chinese to English
My ears are burning... May 13, 2012

Someone must be talking about me!

There's two things you should think about:

1. The process of learning Chinese
2. The utility of Chinese for a career

Learning Chinese is hard, and I would seriously question whether it's possible in Hong Kong. I did Chinese at university, then came to live in Fujian. I had no idea how "yokel" my accent and modes of speech were until I went to do interpreter training in Shanghai. I had to go and spend a month or so in Beijing just to begin to get an ear for the standard accent. Hong Kong is a very different environment, but the same problems may well arise: you'll be surrounded by people speaking Mandarin with a Cantonese accent *and not knowing they're doing it*. Beijing is necessary.

(Incidentally, if you think that health reasons prevent you from going to mainland China, Chinese interpreter is a bloody awful choice of career, isn't it?)

The time investment: I have a friend who went Chinese crazy, put in serious learning hours (I'm talking 12 hours a day, seven days a week) for two years from a zero starting level, and at the end could speak very creditable Chinese. (I was never that dedicated, for me it took much longer.) To get him from that level up to interpreter levels of competence, I would say another two years of full time study would be necessary.

Then, the problem of using your Chinese professionally. Here's the thing: 300-400 million Chinese people have basic English. There's a large pool with good enough English to do basic interpreting. There's about 50 with the chops to be top-quality conference interpreters. If you get to the very top levels, there's definitely a job waiting for you (but do you know what interpreting is like as a job? It's not that creative. The temperament of a musician isn't necessarily suited to conference interpreting.) But if you don't make it to the diplomat level, your Chinese is worth nothing. Or rather, it's worth no more than a Chinese inhouse interpreter salary - somewhat less than 10,000 USD per year. So as a career plan, what you're suggesting is an enormous gamble.

(Of course, there's lots of other things you can do with Chinese. China's music scene is exploding, and if you speak Chinese and want to do music here, you can find some amazing facilities, and potentially huge opportunities.)

Finally - I don't know much about Hong Kong, but I don't think there's a hope in hell of you learning Cantonese socially there. Particularly in a university environment, everyone speaks English. Serious determination is required to learn Cantonese, and if you're busy learning Mandarin you won't have the energy.


 

bangersandmash
TOPIC STARTER
Is it really that bad? May 13, 2012

Phil Hand wrote:

The time investment: I have a friend who went Chinese crazy, put in serious learning hours (I'm talking 12 hours a day, seven days a week) for two years from a zero starting level, and at the end could speak very creditable Chinese. (I was never that dedicated, for me it took much longer.) To get him from that level up to interpreter levels of competence, I would say another two years of full time study would be necessary.

*snip*

Then, the problem of using your Chinese professionally. Here's the thing: 300-400 million Chinese people have basic English. There's a large pool with good enough English to do basic interpreting. There's about 50 with the chops to be top-quality conference interpreters. If you get to the very top levels, there's definitely a job waiting for you (but do you know what interpreting is like as a job? It's not that creative. The temperament of a musician isn't necessarily suited to conference interpreting.) But if you don't make it to the diplomat level, your Chinese is worth nothing. Or rather, it's worth no more than a Chinese inhouse interpreter salary - somewhat less than 10,000 USD per year. So as a career plan, what you're suggesting is an enormous gamble.


May I ask what drove you to become an interpreter? You say you started with zero knowledge of Chinese and then you say that there are several hundred million Chinese who are good enough to do basic translation. I accept that when you studied for it the competition would have been smaller, and you are obviously very good now, but even so, that comment is enough to put anybody off learning any language for career purposes, interpreting or otherwise, unless they grew up bilingual or were learning some really obscure language. Yet westerners are taking up Chinese and other major languages as a foreign language for career purposes. Are they foolish? I appreciate your point, but I'm not quite sure how it joins up with reality.

[Edited at 2012-05-13 13:55 GMT]


 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:10
Hebrew to English
I don't think you're stingy May 13, 2012

Not at all!

I was just trying to suggest more cost-effective ways of going about your plans, and suggesting that due to financial realities, maybe you might have to decide on one language and go with that (but if you think you can afford to study both then great!).

If you were stingy, I don't think you'd be considering doing what you want to do at all!

I found myself in a similar situation when I was younger.
I couldn't afford (the time or money) to study both Hebrew & Greek, so I had to choose one. I chose the language I had a history with and the language which I loved.


 

Alison Sparks  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:10
French to English
+ ...
@Phil May 13, 2012

Hope you realised that it was your left ear burningicon_biggrin.gif I knew you'd have some useful comments for our 'spud and sausage' friend.

Out of curiosity, does it still apply that the written language is the same, and that foreigners have to learn Mandarin to make that step?

I wonder what other Chinese speakers make of dialects like Hakka (not sure of spelling) which was the HK farmers language, or the dialect used by the fishermen (name of which I can't remember)? I guess they too would have odd accents in Mandarin.

Perhaps bangersandmash could try Omelia whilst still in NZ if speaking Cantonese is so important. I remember that the books did give a very accurate anglicised way of finding the right tones and pronunciation. I haven't googled to see if they still exist.


Interesting to know what you decide though.


 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:10
Hebrew to English
Bandwagon jumping? May 14, 2012

bangersandmash wrote:
Yet westerners are taking up Chinese and other major languages as a foreign language for career purposes. Are they foolish?


Firstly, I would agree. A lot of Westerners are taking up Mandarin nowadays, and a lot of people are blindly sending their children off to learn it too, sometimes in bilingual education, private tuition, extra classes etc.

I don't know if Phil will agree with me here, but I feel a lot of them do it without any real understanding of linguistic in particular but also economic factors, merely the rather blunt motivation that China's economy is currently booming and knowledge of Mandarin will therefore be a gateway to share in China's success. There's no doubt some truth in this, but I think it's a gross simplification to believe that speaking Mandarin will equate to future opportunity.

Amongst all the fluffed up hype out there, there are some very estute articles about why Mandarin won't be the next lingua franca (not in our lifetimes anyway). Again, this isn't necessarily a reason not to learn it, it's clearly an important world language. It's just an interesting counterpoint for the droves of people flocking to Mandarin classes under a false assumption.

I'm not trying to put you off though (just want to make that clear). I'm a big believer in following your dreams. I lost count of how many people tried to discourage me from learning Hebrew, and even more from working with it also....I didn't listen to them and I'm glad. If you want it badly enough, don't let anyone stop you.

[Edited at 2012-05-14 13:27 GMT]


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 04:10
Chinese to English
Next lingua franca? Nup May 14, 2012

Definitely not the next lingua franca - there's no will to make it happen, not even within China. But for us translators, that's actually a good thing!

I'm definitely a believer in the China hype (just spent most of a year's earnings on a small piece of commercial property here in Xiamen, because I believe it will increase in value and create an income for me). And there is a huge shortage of non-Chinese Chinese speakers, so learning Chinese is without doubt a good career move. Learning Japanese is the same, and there's not so much hype around Japan these days. But no, Chinese will never be a standard vehicle for communication between non-Chinese speakers outside of China.


 

LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 16:10
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Why Chinese isn't as hard as you think May 14, 2012

http://www.fluentin3months.com/chinese/

 
Just do it!!! May 14, 2012

bangersandmash wrote:

I, too, have heard the stories of Hong Kongers not wanting to speak Cantonese with the white foreigners.

[Edited at 2012-05-13 13:16 GMT]


I'm living in Korea and I know the situation when everybody wants to speak in English with foreigners. The best way is to tell them that you don't speak English, that you speak a language that nobody knows there. It works sometime.
Regarding your question, if you want to study any language for any porpose, you should do it. Even if you won't be able to work as a professional translator, it could be a part time job any time.


 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:10
Hebrew to English
Oooh, Benny the Irish Polyglot May 14, 2012



I admit, he makes a few good points, but I really don't rate this guy.


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 04:10
Chinese to English
Bad/good May 15, 2012

Bangers: you're confusing two different things
1) Learning Chinese in order to be an interpreter
2) Learning Chinese for other purposes

Like I said, learning Chinese to be an interpreter is a huge gamble. You either have to get really really good, or you have to resign yourself to a career spent competing with people who are prepared to accept a much lower standard of living than you. Not fun.

But of course, there are lots and lots of things you can do with Chinese. Many business services, entertainment services, sales jobs, etc.

However, you said at the start that you refuse to live in China. I still think that if China is the one place in the world you don't want to go, then learning Chinese for any purpose is a bloody silly career plan. If you're going to do business in China, you'll have to spend time in China. If you're going to provide services in China, you'll have to spend a lot of time in China. If you want to live in New Zealand - the demand for Chinese is going to be (a) interpreter or (b) social worker. And both of those are tough options.

Learn Thai. Also tonal, air pollution not as bad.

As for me, I started learning Chinese back when I was young and stupid. I literally had no idea what I was going to do with it. I just drifted into translating & interpreting through a series of coincidences here. But as a career plan for a 28 year old? Learning Chinese has all the difficulty of a law degree, and none of the guaranteed stability at the end.


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 04:10
Chinese to English
I like Benny's article May 15, 2012

Never run across him before, but much of that article is spot on.

Beautiful debunking of the shi shi shi poem.

And look, even if he's a bit OTT, there's a lot of moaning about how hard Chinese is out there. A little bit of balance does the internet no harm at all.


 
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