Mandarin remains a popular choice for foreign language learners around the globe, and it’s easy to see why learning Chinese is valued. Apart from being the language with the largest number of native speakers in the world, Mandarin skills come with a slew of valuable benefits.
Many of these benefits are already well known. For one, knowing Mandarin allows you to learn more about the culture and history of one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Because of China’s massive economy, it also expands your business and career opportunities. And if you ever find yourself in China or another Chinese-speaking region, your language skills will make your journeys so much more fun and enriching.
Alongside these benefits, here’s a perk that might be new to you: research actually suggests that learning Chinese boosts your brain power. That’s right, studying Mandarin can actually make you smarter.
How Learning Chinese Can Make You Smarter
Before we get into the specific benefits of learning Chinese, let’s take a look at why bilinguals are smarter and how learning any second language amplifies your intelligence.
Benefits of Bilingualism
Research indicates that bilingual people are smarter for these reasons:
- Knowing another language can make you slow down your thoughts, which makes you a more rational decision-maker.
- The understanding that you can express yourself in various ways in a different language makes you more creative.
- Learning another language improves your emotional and social intelligence. You must learn how to communicate with others even when you do not fully understand the verbal language.
- You learn to be more adaptable in uncertain and unpredictable situations as you get accustomed to operating in a different language.
- Learning another language has also been shown to prevent some mental effects of aging, like Alzheimer’s.
These are all great reasons to learn another language.
Learning Chinese will, of course, provide you with these general mental benefits. Still, there are reasons to learn Chinese that have to do with Mandarin’s distinct qualities.
So, what makes learning Chinese different from learning another language like French? And how do these differences make you smarter?
Learning Chinese Characters
Chinese doesn’t use an alphabet but its own system of written characters, so learning how to read and write in Chinese requires the memorization of thousands of individual characters. This takes a lot of time and effort.
Your brain will thank you. The advantage here is that learning Chinese characters expands your memory capacity and improves your visual recall. As you learn how to recognize Chinese characters, you get better at distinguishing visual forms in general. A study conducted in Japan found that Japanese subjects (who had learned Chinese characters) scored better on a visual recall test than Americans.
Learning Chinese Tones
Learning how to understand and speak Chinese is hard work for English speakers. Mandarin’s spoken sound system uses syllabic tones, which can be very hard for English speakers to get accustomed to.
Keep practicing. If you learn how to understand spoken Chinese as well as speak Chinese yourself, you might be developing your whole brain. Research suggests that, because the Chinese language uses its system of tones, learning Chinese requires the use of both temporal lobes of the brain, whereas English only requires the use of the left temporal lobe.
Difficulties Learning Chinese
Chinese is hard to learn for English speakers. When compared with other languages, Mandarin has myriad differences—like characters and tones—that make it hard to grasp and even harder to master for English speakers.
Don’t let this deter you from learning Chinese. The very difficulty of the endeavor teaches you how to stay determined even when you encounter hardship. The long amount of time it takes to learn Mandarin also teaches you how to achieve long-term goals.
If you manage to learn Chinese, then you can tackle other challenges in your life. Learning Mandarin will give you the experience and mental fortitude you need.
Chinese Learning Hacks
So learning Chinese can make you smarter, but what’s the smartest way to learn Chinese? Here are some top tips:
Expand Your Vocabulary
A common challenge for Chinese learners arises when they realize that, though they’ve worked through their textbooks and should technically be at an intermediate or advanced level, they can’t actually understand Chinese newspapers or TV shows yet. There are just too many holes in their vocabulary.
Resolve this problem by ensuring that you learn more vocabulary. Don’t just rely on the vocabulary in your textbooks. When you encounter new phrases and words, add them to your study plan so you learn and remember them.
Focus on Retention
As you learn more Chinese, you want to be sure that you’re maintaining what you’ve already learned. When you’re working on your intermediate-level textbook, make sure you don’t forget what was in your beginner-level textbook so that you don’t waste the time you’ve invested.
Use spaced repetition to make sure you retain what you’ve already learned. Spaced repetition techniques have been designed to optimize your study reviews. Apps like Hack Chinese make it incredibly easy to incorporate spaced repetition into your Chinese studies.
It should go without saying that practicing daily will help you learn Chinese, but it should be emphasized that daily practice is really how you’ll make progress long term. This is especially true when it comes to vocabulary, which you should be trying to build up every day.
Practicing every day will help you make your Chinese studies a habit, and that’s what you need to run the marathon of learning Chinese. There’s a long way to go, so you need to be taking regular steps forward.
Pace Your Learning
That being said, when it comes to practicing daily, it truly helps to learn in small chunks. When you’re first trying to study every day, short study sessions will get you into the habit of showing up for Chinese practice each day.
These short study sessions are effective for vocabulary revision, listening to YouTube videos or podcasts, and conversation practice. Furthermore, studying regularly in short intervals is better for memory retention than cramming the same amount of study time into one study session.
If you’re ready to buckle down and learn some Chinese, prepare to both stretch and strengthen your mind. Learning Chinese is hard work, but the whole process keeps your brain active, flexible, and healthy. As long as you put good study practices and habits into place, you ensure that you make lasting progress that you can apply towards your own personal development and goals.
Daniel Nalesnik is the founder of Hack Chinese, a smart platform for learning Chinese vocabulary. Daniel moved to China in 2009 for a year of full-time Mandarin immersion at Peking University (in Beijing) and Fudan University (in Shanghai). In the years since he has worked with teachers throughout China to discover what learning methods are most impactful for Mandarin Chinese learners. This experience inspired Daniel to found Hack Chinese, a spaced-repetition platform for learning Mandarin Chinese.