Learning Mandarin Can Change the Way You Think

Written by: Anna Rugg

What language do you think in? Most likely your mother tongue, but if you’ve learned a second (or more) language you might think in another language some of the time. The language you think in shapes the way you think.

As a native English speaker, learning Chinese in China (http://keatschinese.com) has been a rewarding, albeit difficult, process for many reasons including broadening my horizons about how people think.

This journey has led me to realize how amazingly differently two people can express the same thought or describe the same object. It has also shown me how a deep understanding of a language is necessary for clear communication.

After studying Mandarin for a while, you might find yourself saying OK twelve times in a row like how a Chinese person says hao. You might throw in words like suibian or mafen even into conversations in your mother tongue. And you may never be able to draw squares the same way again. (Chinese characters are drawn in very specific ways.) Subtle changes to the way you think and process language can occur without you even realizing it. And if you do stop to ponder how learning Mandarin has influenced your thinking, you might discover even bigger changes.

Here are a few larger changes that I have noticed.

Different Ways of Describing the Same Thing

Different languages describe things in unique ways. And not just things that you think might be culturally subjective like how crowded a place is or how spicy a certain food is.

You know that black tea we drink in the West? Well, it is red tea in Mandarin. Brown sugar also just turned red, and oranges are described as yellow on this side of the world.

glass of tea

After learning the “correct” colors of these and other objects in Mandarin, I can start to see why they are referenced in that way. Black tea leaves produce liquid tea that has a reddish color. Brown sugar has red undertones.

When I view the world now, I often wonder how other people would describe what I am seeing.

Concise and Direct

“Can I have this? Yes or no?”

I’ll never forget the first time we were in China and an English student asked me this. It comes across as rather rude in English, but after studying Chinese for a while, I realized this student was just imposing the simple, direct grammar of Mandarin into her English.

Chinese is very direct and doesn’t use more words than necessary. Sometimes English speakers would be better off cutting the fat out of our speech and just saying what is necessary.

Entirely New Concepts

Some things just don’t translate well because they are entirely new concepts.

How do you translate renao (热闹) into English? Exciting? Bustling? Kind of like going shopping in a crowded mall at Christmas time? Getting close, but you can’t totally capture this concept. Certain concepts just simply don’t exist in other languages.

Learning these new concepts makes me wonder what other concepts and ways of thinking are out there that I have never explored.

people crowd

Relationship Terms Used Very Differently

Another way that the language of Mandarin is very different from English is the way in which relationship terms are used. In English familial terms like grandma, grandpa and the like are only used for blood relatives. In Chinese you extend the use of the familial term to those who are of similar age in relation to you. Those men who are your grandpa’s age, you can call grandpa, even if it is the first time you have met them.

China and Mandarin place a very high value on community and family. The West tends to value individuality and doing things yourself more so. This can be a good thing when kept in the proper perspective. However, humans were not meant to live isolated lives, and viewing yourself as part of a larger family can be a very good change in Western thinking. Especially if it leads you to care for and want to help others more.

Learning new ways of thinking stretches my mind and makes me want to learn more. These and other differences between Mandarin and English make me wonder how many other ways humans view the world and pattern their thoughts.

Baby Talk to Chinese Friend_1024