Go Out for Chinese
Xin nian kuai le. You might not know what that means ("Happy New Year"), but 1.3 billion Chinese do. And with the country's double-digit economic growth and rising global stature, anyone considering a language (or looking for a career boost) might think about tackling Chinese.
To be sure, you shouldn't expect to pick it up overnight. Chinese is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. Words are depicted with pictograms rather than spelled out with an alphabet. And saying a word using the wrong tone can change its meaning from "mother" to "scold" or "horse." "Without a doubt, it's the tonal system that's the hardest thing about learning Chinese," says Jack Fairweather, a British journalist who has been studying the language for three months. "Unless my teacher knows exactly what's about to come out of my mouth, I will say something and she looks alternately perplexed, alarmed, or amused."
So some are starting early. Increasingly, high schools are adding Mandarin Chinese to the standard offerings of Spanish, French, German, and Latin. When the College Board surveyed high schools last fall to see how many were interested in offering Advanced Placement courses in Chinese, it expected around 200 to say yes; instead, 2,400 wanted in.
But for those who didn't get that jump-start, where to begin? Local colleges often offer evening and weekend language classes for adults. If you're feeling more ambitious and can afford to take time off work, Vermont's Middlebury College offers an intensive nine-week course, featuring a pledge to speak only Chinese from the moment you arrive. Brace yourself for a long, mind-opening journey. Even if you never master the language, getting there could be half the fun.
This story appears in the December 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.