Learning Mandarin Chinese is best done with friends; Photo by Laura Sun

By Aaron Posehn

If you’ve ever thought about learning Mandarin Chinese, you’ve probably also heard the language is one of the toughest in the world. You’ve likely been told about the madness that is thousands of Chinese characters needed for daily functionality, multiple tones, and syllables that are sometimes difficult to distinguish, never mind pronounce.

But you can relax. You’ve been taking advice from the wrong people. Chinese isn’t the monster that it’s made out to be. However, it does have its unique areas, so you should seek out as much help as you can get. Films, websites, books, this disturbing hand puppet/bondage lady – all acceptable resources. But keep in mind that not all methods are created equal. Memorizing the dictionary won’t help you construct a sentence. But watching a mini-series might, and the vocabulary will tend to stick because you’re seeing it as its spoken in real situtations.

However, the absolute best way to go about learning Chinese is simply to talk with people. Pushing yourself to do this will reap great rewards, and much sooner than you might think! But maybe you don’t know any native speakers – this is where a Chinese Language Club can come in.

This is an invaluable learning tool because every participant has one of two specific goals, either learn Chinese or teach Chinese, and these clubs aren’t too difficult to find, if you know where to look. The several in which I’ve been involved have been constructed in one of two ways: either a pre-formed group that I have joined, or else a “start-up” group that helped to fill a gap.

When I was in university, several classmates and I found this gap at our school. There were a lot of Chinese clubs, but these were attended mostly by Chinese people who focused on social activities, so the obvious solution was to start a club of our own.

It was simple, really. Four of us, a president, a vice-president, a marketing director (myself), and a finance director, devised a plan for how we wanted to extend Chinese language learning to other students, came up with a set of activities to do from week to week, and then marketed our ideas through social media outlets, on posters, and by word of mouth.

We always focused on fun and participation, regardless of an individual’s skill level. It was just important that people were having fun while learning – the main key to mastering a language! This helped our group to grow to more than 100 members in only several years – we even made a few student films!

We were also lucky enough to receive funding from the local Chinese consulate, which we got (like anything else in China) from having good contacts, or guanxi. Several of our members had previously emceed several events that had been sponsored by the consulate, and one thing naturally led to another. The Chinese government is in the business of promoting Mandarin Chinese, so it was an obvious move for them to take, and with extremely little investment (about $300 per semester).

Now that I’m some years out of university, I have had to look in other areas for organizations in which to participate. One has been the Vancouver Mandarin Chinese Club, a club that organizes itself through the larger website www.meetup.com.

Almost immediately I realized it to be very well-organized, with the potential for me to learn a lot (and indeed I have). It also happens to be attached to the larger Confucius Institute, a non-profit public institution of the Chinese government with the aim of promoting Chinese language and culture internationally, and now found in over 300 cities throughout the world.

Depending on the specific meet-up that one might attend, activities could include a classroom setting with a specific topic like how to tackle tones or how to improve your knowledge of Chinese idioms. Other meet-ups are more informal where you can just talk with friends. Participants come from all sorts of backgrounds, from students to businessmen, bankers to retirees, new immigrants to teachers.

You can easily pick the brains of the native speakers here and their knowledge of the language during these informal weekly chats – a great opportunity to have any confusing questions answered, or to review what you’ve already learned.

And so it is through these channels that I would suggest looking if you are interested in attending a Mandarin language club. Search the internet for existing organizations, check for Facebook groups, put up advertisements, or ask your local Confucius Institute.

Above all though, do not feel intimidated if you think that your level is currently too low to have any business starting up or participating in such a group. Language learning is a continuous process, and any and all participants will just be glad that there is a place to practice with like-minded individuals.

Aaron Posehn works at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada and is currently writing a book on how to easily learn Chinese characters. He has been studying Mandarin since 1998.